FC Zurich and Lugano face relegation and Swiss cup final in same week
It is a very strange week for FC Zurich and FC Lugano, the two clubs at the bottom of the Swiss Super League. Their fate in the top flight is to be decided on Wednesday -- one will go down, while the other will be saved -- but they will then play each other in the Swiss Cup final on Sunday.
Lugano, with a one-point advantage in the table, know that everything is in their hands and need to beat St Gallen at home; Zurich are just hoping for their rivals to slip up as they host Vaduz.
This weekend, however, it will be a totally different story as Lugano and Zurich play each other in the cup final. Football has witnessed relegated teams lifting cups in the past, and numerous lower division clubs have made sensational cup runs as well, but have the bottom two teams in the table ever reached a cup final together? In all likelihood, it's unprecedented.
For Zurich, one of the most important and well-respected clubs in the country and who were champions as recently as 2009, relegation would be absolutely disastrous. Their stay in the top flight has been uninterrupted for 26 years and the club had a positive strategy of promoting academy graduates under legendary chairman Sven Hotz and his successor Ancillo Canepa, who took charge in 2006. The list of stars who have risen to prominence at the club includes Ricardo Rodriguez, Gokhan Inler, Blerim Dzemaili, Josip Drmic and Admir Mehmedi.
However, as Basel became the dominant force in Switzerland and won back-to-back titles from 2010, Caneppa gradually lost patience and stability was thrown out of the window. Claims of nepotism were widespread with numerous relatives on the board of directors and Canepa's wife heavily involved in running the club.
Zurich started selling players without replacing them properly, and results worsened over time. The club finished third last season, but still ended up a whopping 25 points away from the champions. And when coach Urs Meier was fired in August after falling out with fans over the mistreatment of popular goalkeeper David Da Costa, Canepa stated that "the situation is not serious."
Canepa may have had hopes of challenging Basel for the title this season, but nothing could be further from reality.
Former Liverpool star Sami Hyypia, who had been out of a job since resigning from Brighton in late 2014, was named the club's new coach and given the freedom to do anything. The result was disastrous to put it mildly. Even signing veteran Russian striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov on loan from Zenit in the winter didn't help, and Hyypia eventually left after the 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Lugano two weeks ago. The fiasco left Zurich bottom of the table and favourites to go down.
"Canepa made a big mistake by trusting Hyypia, but that is what happens when nobody is in a position to tell you that you are wrong," RTS commentator David Lemos told ESPN FC. "Now Zurich could be relegated and that is a great shame because they are a club of great tradition that raised a lot of quality players for Swiss football."
Winning the cup for the ninth time in their history won't console Zurich's desperate fans if they lose their place in the Super League. For Lugano, the situation is a bit different as it could be their first trophy since 1993 -- when they remarkably defeated Grasshoppers, the other team from Zurich, to lift the cup 23 years ago.
The Swiss league was much stronger in those days and Grasshoppers were a real force with the likes of young Giovane Elber and Ciriaco Sforza in their ranks. But, led by the Nestor Subiat, Lugano sensationally demolished them 4-1.
The club came close to winning their first championship title since the World War II in 2001, however they went bankrupt in 2004 and only returned to the top flight in summer 2015 to the delight of the whole Italian-speaking region.
Zdenek Zeman, the 69-year-old Czech specialist famous for his attacking tactics and ability to nurture young talents, arrived in order to help the team to survive, but found it a tough task.
Lugano put in the worst defensive record in the league, conceding 75 goals in 35 games, and Zeman was close to the sack after three successive thrashings -- 6-0 (Sion), 7-0 (Young Boys) and 4-1 (Basel) in April -- but managed to win the following fixture and kept his job. He then stated that staying up would be the most difficult achievement in his entire career.
"Beating St Gallen will make all the difference for Lugano," Marcello Pelizzari of Corriere del Ticino told ESPN FC. "There is a huge gap between the divisions, both financially and from the pure football point of view, and it is obvious that everyone will prefer to stay up rather than win the cup. That would be a miracle given the terrible results in 2016."
And yet, despite all their troubles in the league, both Lugano and Zurich have enjoyed a great season in the cup.
Lugano have been lucky with the draw, only having to take on one team from the Super League on their way to the final, as young Greek striker Anastasios Donis (on loan from Juventus) netted four goals, including a brace at Luzern in the semifinals.
Zurich had a much tougher route, beating Young Boys, Thun and holders Sion -- all of them away. So they probably deserve the trophy a bit more, though it is still difficult to predict the outcome given what has already happened in such a crazy season.
Each team can celebrate twice in the next four days, but might also be on the losing side twice. By the time the final at Zurich's Letzigrund stadium on Sunday is over, people may wonder when we see the likes of Switzerland's incredible season again.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin