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May 26, 2014

32 Teams in 32 Days: Switzerland

Switzerland will be making their 10th World Cup appearance as they look to improve on their 2010 performance and advance from the group stage.

Group E | Ecuador | France | Honduras


Team DNA

Switzerland are a team made in the image of Ottmar Hitzfeld, their veteran German manager. The 65-year-old Champions League winner with Borussia Dortmund (1997) and Bayern Munich (2001) has become progressively more defensive in his outlook, and the "Nati," as the Swiss affectionately call their national team, are set up with caution and stability in mind.

Their 4-2-3-1 system looks far more adventurous on paper than on the pitch, where the two central midfielders from Napoli, Gökhan Inler and Valon Behrami, rarely venture too far from the back four.

This doesn't mean Switzerland don't have exciting players -- quite the contrary. There is genuine quality on the flanks, with Xherdan Shaqiri (Bayern) and future Hertha BSC winger Valentin Stocker. Granit Xhaka of Borussia Mönchengladbach is a useful playmaker, while young, pacy striker Josip Drmic (off to Bayer Leverkusen after the World Cup) has had a fantastic season in the Bundesliga with Nürnberg (17 goals).

Starting scenarios

History

The last time Switzerland made it past the Round of 16 at the World Cup was when they hosted the event in 1954. Overall, this will be their 10th World Cup appearance and third straight. In 2006, the Swiss made the Round of 16, but failed to match that four years later in South Africa.

How they reached Brazil

Opponents Iceland, Slovenia, Norway, Albania and Cyprus offered little resistance in Group E qualifying.

Switzerland, a side built around the generation of U17 World Cup winners from 2009 (Xhaka, Ricardo Rodriguez, Haris Seferovic), came through the qualifiers unbeaten and at the top of the table with one game to spare.

Their games (seven wins, three draws) were mostly low-scoring and conducted in a calm, professional manner. But there was one notable exception. In September 2013, they uncharacteristically squandered a 4-1 lead at home against Iceland to finish with a 4-4 draw.

Only Spain (14) scored fewer goals than Hitzfeld's squad (17) in the campaign, but the defending World Cup champs played two fewer games. Defender Fabian Schär (Basel) was the best scorer with three goals.

The 2-0 win at home against Albania in September 2012 was probably the key game in terms of providing a platform for future results. Amid much talk about the pressures of facing the country of their parents, the five Kosovo-Albanians -- Admir Mehmedi, Blerim Dzemaili, Xhaka, Shaqiri and Behrami -- put in strong performances.

The numbers never lie

Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:

Key battles

Germany are the team the Swiss would like to beat most, in any sport. A 5-3 win against Joachim Loew's team in a May 2012 friendly was "celebrated like the deed of a century," says David Wiederkehr of Zürich-based newspaper Tages-Anzeiger.

But the two teams can first meet in the quarterfinals, and only if both finish in the same position in their respective groups.

There is also a bit of a rivalry with France, especially for the players from the western French-speaking part of the country. France beat Switzerland 3-1 at the 2004 Euros, but the three subsequent competitive matches (2006 World Cup qualifiers and tournament group stage) ended in draws.

Most important player

Shaqiri is Switzerland's standout player with considerable attacking potential. The 22-year-old will carry the hopes of a nation at his first senior tournament. Dubbed "Power Cube" due to his stocky build, he moved to Switzerland as a civil war refugee from the former Yugoslavia and grew up on a farm.

He can play on either flank or as a No. 10 "in the hole" behind the striker; he's fast, tricky and has a strong finish. There are small doubts about the former Basel midfielder's fitness, however: A hamstring injury saw him miss the last two months of Bayern's double-winning season under Pep Guardiola.

Definition of success

The main target is to improve on the ultimately disappointing showing in South Africa four years ago. Switzerland shocked Spain with a 1-0 win in the group opener, only to lose to Chile and finish third after a goalless draw with Honduras in the third game.

- Video: Switzerland odds in World Cup (Australia only)

In Brazil, Honduras again provide the opposition in Group E, alongside Ecuador and France. It's not the toughest of assignments, and Hitzfeld is expected to make the Round of 16 in his swan song with the national team.

Argentina or Bosnia-Herzegovina would be the most likely opponents in the first knockout round. If Switzerland advances to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1954, they will receive a heroes' welcome back home.

How far will Switzerland go?

Round of 16.

ESPN FC Analysts' take: Steve McManaman

Switzerland is young, and to me that will mean a team full of confidence and exuberance. There's no pressure on them whatsoever, and they're able to adapt. Against top-tier sides, the Swiss will try to be goal poachers, but against other squads, they'll really try to play football.

The players aren't experienced, which isn't always a disadvantage. They'll go out and think, "This is the stage for me -- I'm going to have a go today."

A lack of organisation on defence is the biggest concern against the high-caliber teams at the World Cup. At the back, Switzerland have older players: Philippe Senderos and Inler in front of him, and most of the defensive players are in their 20s or 30s. Against a team like France, do those players have the pace? I don't think they'll be organised enough.

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