Vladimir Petkovic has worked wonders while in charge of Switzerland; his impact has been in evidence particularly since their Euro 2016 exit at the hands of Poland two years ago. They have lost just once in a competitive match from then to now, and only missed out on automatic qualification for the World Cup to Portugal on goal difference. The biggest thing Petkovic has instilled since taking charge in 2014 is a never-say-die attitude.
It has been on show already in Russia; when Philippe Coutinho scored a wonder goal early on in their opening game against Brazil, they could easily have surrendered to what looked like an on form Selecao side. After a blistering start, Switzerland regained their composure and organisation before grabbing an equaliser shortly after half time and holding on for a point. Against Serbia on matchday two, the story was very similar; an early goal down, they pulled themselves level and, in the last minute, Xherdan Shaqiri stepped up and found a winner. That game felt crucial, and in the final group match, this time against Costa Rica, only a point was required to seal their place in the last 16, where they will now face Sweden.
Their impressive game management have not been the only theme to emerge, though; they have lacked real potency in attack, which will cost them more as the tournament progresses. Haris Seferovic and Mario Gavranovic have looked far from dangerous, and the only attacking threats have come from Shaqiri, who thrives on beating players, and Blerim Dzemaili. His late runs into the box have caused a number of problems so far and he opened the scoring against Costa Rica. Josip Drmic came off the bench, replacing Gavranovic, and he scored what looked like being a late winne before penalty drama cost them three points, It would not be a surprise to see Petkovic start Drmic on Tuesday afternoon.
Sweden have reason to believe they can progress; they are probably favourites to do so after beating Mexico in their final group game to finish top of the table, knocking out world champions Germany in the process. But their form goes further back than this tournament; after a disappointing showing at Euro 2016, which ended in an early exit, they took on France and Holland In a qualification, finishing above the latter before beating Italy in the playoffs. They have thrived on the counter attack, exploiting spaces in behind teams by getting their star man, Emil Forsberg, running off Marcus Berg up front. Ideally, that is how the Swiss would prefer to play, with Granit Xhaka impressing in possession in midfield, generally helping his side control the tempo of games, which shouild help them combat Sweden, but they didn’t have enough of a presence up front in their earlier games.
One huge positive difference for Switzerland against Costa Rica was Breel Embolo; the 21-year-old offered a new dimension out on the left of midfield, giving impetus and pace to the side, which had previously looked passive, laboured and, perhaps, fearful of breaking away from their shape. Embolo is, alongside Shaqiri, Switzerland’s most exciting player, and it would be a risk not to start him against Sweden, given what he has brought offered in his fleeting appearances so far. Most of their energy came from the left last week, with Embolo linking up well with Ricardo Rodríguez, who previously was the main source of intent down that side. Not only did the Schalke man take the responsibility off Shaqiri somewhat, but he gave the side much more balance when they pushed forward,
Xhaka should keep the shape and minimisde the threat from the Swedes on the break, which should give Petkovic more freedom to go for victory from the off. There can be no doubting Switzerland become more effective midway through games after the pattern has been set, but it will a problem if they go a goal down as they did in two off their group matches. Shaqiri will again be the main threat, but if Drmic, Dzemaili and Embolo can also be called upon. There has been a frustrating lack of intent from a number of teams at the tournament so far, and Switzerland need to show more if they are to go further.
But the story is the same for both sides; their half of the draw has really opened up after Spain were rather surprisingly knocked out on penalties against hosts Russia on Sunday. Croatia are the favourites after beating Denmark, but every team will fancy their chances of making history and reaching a World Cup final. The winner of this game at the Krestovsky Stadium will face either England or Colombia; Switzerland have shown they are hard to beat, but now they must show they have enough quality themselves. Embolo could be key, both against Sweden and any opponents to come.