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Hosts hold the hope of a nation

If teams at this year's Euro 2008 tournament are judged on their expectations, then co-hosts Switzerland will have to get to the quarter-finals at the very least if they are to placate their fans.

Jakob Kuhn's men exceeded all hopes at the 2006 World Cup by making it through to the Round of 16 against Ukraine without conceding a goal from open play. Topping their group stage (finishing above France in the process), the Swiss gained a lot of supporters for their tenacious style of play before being dumped out on penalties, after they failed to hit the net once from twelve yards out.

Over the years, Switzerland have failed to catch the eye. Not making it to either the 1998 or 2002 World Cups, the side also missed out completely on Euro 2000 and could only manage the Group stages in 1996 and 2004.

More worryingly, their performances in the run-up to their Euro 2008 campaign have been less than impressive. In their capacity as co-hosts with Austria, they were spared the qualifying process, but they have failed to get back the kind of form that they showed in Germany from any of their recent friendly games.

Losing 4-0 to Germany in March, they have also notched up disappointing defeats to Japan, Colombia, Nigeria, U.S.A and Austria since the World Cup. Kuhn was forced to drop captain Johann Vogel, while an injury to star striker Alexander Frei hindered his side's ability to gel and the signs for success on home soil looked bleak.

Still, some encouraging performances in the form of a win over Holland and a draw against Argentina showed that the Swiss still have the potential to upset some of the major teams and, in a Group where they are behind Portugal and the Czech Republic in many peoples' estimations, relying on an underdog spirit could be key.

Coach Jakob Kuhn, himself plucked from the obscurity of the Swiss U-21 setup to manage the national side, is the man tasked with instilling this in the side. The 65-year-old will be retiring after the tournament but has already won a place in the hearts of the Swiss people after an impressive record in big competitions.

The first homegrown manager since 1989, Kuhn oversaw the team's progression to Euro 2004 (their first appearance in a major competition since Euro '96) and then went on to lead them through qualifying for a place at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Giving his players a solid platform to build from, Kuhn's focus is on good positional play coupled with a strong defensive line and Switzerland impressed greatly in Germany by proving themselves to be a tough team to beat.

Without conceding a goal in the 2006 World Cup, Kuhn's side have every reason to be proud of their defensive record. Well drilled in zonal defending, the leading lights in the back-four are Arsenal's central pairing of Philippe Senderos and Johan Djourou, who have leapt to the fore after the experienced Patrick Müller suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury which kept him out for the entire season.

Muller still hopes to be fit for the tournament, although has upset his club, Lyon, by joining up with the squad without permission. Having made the squad, his experience will be important for the side as an indifferent campaign for the Gunners has seen the error-prone Senderos vilified by the media and made a scapegoat for the team's failure to beat Liverpool in the Champions League.

Still, manager Arsene Wenger has a great deal of faith in the young stopper and although 'mentally tired' at the end of the 2007/08 season, Senderos will view the Euro 2008 tournament as a chance to put his doubters to rest.

Complementing Senderos' bulk in the heart of defence is the pace of Djourou. While he has not made the impact that he would have hoped to do upon returning from loan at Birmingham in January, the 21-year-old has the potential to do well if he can overcome his numerous injury worries.

Alongside the likes of Liverpool-bound Philipp Degen, Stephan Lichtsteiner, Ludovic Magnin and Christoph Spycher, the Swiss are well covered in defence, but have had trouble making an impression at the other end of the pitch.

Basing their play around a solid defensive framework, Kuhn's men have gained a reputation as a low-scoring side. Not helped by the absence of leading striker Alexander Frei in recent games, their 4-2-3-1 formation is hardly conducive to flowing attacking play and much will rely on Swiss poster-boy Tranquillo Barnetta and the experienced Hakan Yakin to kick-start their creativity.

Barnetta in particular has a great deal of talent and, at only 22-years-old, has the potential to become one of the stars of the future for his national side. Boasting great dribbling skills and a good turn of pace, the Leverkusen star is a shoe-in for a midfield berth and should compliment Yakin well, provided that he fully overcomes an ankle ligament injury picked up in training three weeks before the tournament.

Building on a platform created by Man City's Gelson Fernandes who impressed under Sven Goran-Eriksson last season, and Lazio's Valon Behrami, the attacking pair should be given plenty of room to find the right ball. The problem comes in the fact that they are limited in who they can pass to.

Leading striker Frei has had a tough year with injuries and will not be at full strength for the start of the tournament, while one of the rising stars of Swiss football, Eren Derdiyok, has only recently made an impact on the international stage. Coming on to score against England in February, the 19-year-old Basel player certainly has potential but the Swiss are lacking an experienced frontman to get them the goals they'll need to progress.

Marco Streller has failed to fill the boots of Frei in his absence and, with Blaise N'Kufo injured, much will rely on the Dortmund striker's fitness if the side are to be successful. At least with only three goals to go before he becomes the country's leading scorer, Frei has plenty of incentive to play a part in proceedings.

Still, despite their poor recent form, there is no reason why Switzerland cannot cause a shock on the home soil. Playing all their group games in front of a partisan crowd in Basel, Kuhn and company will hope to build on an impressive World Cup campaign and give their supporters something to cheer about by causing an upset in progressing to the knockout stages again.

If they can steer clear of another penalty shoot-out and improve their scoring record then a quarter-final appearance would appease the millions of fans who will be following the team in June and give Kuhn the send off that he deserves.

Improving upon their 2006 exploits would be a great achievement for a side who many experts won't tip to make it past the group stages. Any less than a quarter-final spot though, and Kuhn risks incurring the wrath of an overly expectant set of home fans.

  • Any comments? Email Jon Carter


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