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Jun 30, 2014

Rodriguez, a South American full-back in disguise

Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld admits to there being a nervous tension amongst his players as their historic match in the knock-out stages against one the tournament favourites Argentina draws closer.

Left-back Ricardo Rodriguez has the name of a South American and plays like one, with his swashbuckling forays upfield, so it may be something of a surprise to see him wearing the red shirt of Switzerland.

The 21-year-old has been one of the World Cup's most impressive left-backs, with performances that have belied his youth and confirmed his potential as one of world's top players at his position.

- Argentina vs. Switzerland: 50-50 Challenge

Born in Zurich, Rodriguez has a Spanish father and a Chilean mother -- making him eligible to play for three national teams -- but there was never any doubt that he was going to represent the country of his birth. Good in the air and strong at free kicks, he charges forward and keeps attackers supplied with an abundance of whipped crosses. Some feel that Rodriguez is already more accomplished than Juventus defender Stephan Lichtsteiner, something that Rodriguez himself shrugs off. "Lichtsteiner plays for a top club, he plays in the Champions League, and I don't," he said recently.

Rodriguez's career got off to a flying start when he helped Switzerland win the U17 world championship in Nigeria in 2009.

Success at youth team level often gives little indication of what is to come, and most of the other members of that team have disappeared off the radar. Rodriguez's career, however, has developed smoothly. The following year he forced his way into the FC Zurich team, winning his place at the expense of former Switzerland international Ludovic Magnin.

VfL Wolfsburg spotted him and signed him before the 2012-13 season in what was a moment of truth for the teenager. Swiss players have a hard time when they move to the Bundesliga and often find themselves warming the substitutes' bench or sent on loan elsewhere. Rodriguez also found himself with one of German football's toughest taskmasters, Wolfsburg coach Felix Magath. But Magath took an instant liking to Rodriguez and put him straight in the team.

Wolfsburg, however, were struggling, and Magath was fired in late October, to be replaced by Lorenz-Guenther Kostner. Rodriguez suddenly found himself out of favour and started only one of the next 10 games. But when Dieter Hecking took over at the start of last year, Rodriguez was back in business.

Last season was almost perfect. Rodriguez played in every minute of VfL Wolfsburg's campaign, helping them finish fifth and qualify for the Europa League. He scored five goals and provided nine assists, underlining his reputation as one of Europe's most impressive left-backs. He reportedly attracted interest from Liverpool.

He has continued to provide chances for his teammates in the World Cup, setting up both goals in Switzerland's 2-1 win over Ecuador in the opening game. He provided the corner from which Admir Mehmedi headed the equaliser early in the second half and sent in an inviting pass that Haris Seferovic smashed into the roof of the net for the injury-time winner.

Although that was followed by a nightmarish 5-2 defeat to France in their next game, the Swiss bounced back to beat Honduras 3-0 and qualify for the round of 16. Rodriguez's defensive qualities were more in evidence vs. Honduras, as Swiss manager Ottmar Hitzfeld settled on a more cautious approach in the stifling tropical heat and humidity.

Tuesday's match against Argentina, however, will be played in much cooler Sao Paulo, where Rodriguez could be a major threat to a suspect Argentine back line.