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Five Aside: Group winners reign

Five Aside Jul 1, 2014
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Tactics: U.S. defend deep

Tactics Board Jul 1, 2014
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Matchday 14: Messi, Argentina in round of 16

Five Aside Jun 25, 2014
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Jul 2, 2014

Assessment: Target attained

Switzerland have bowed out of the World Cup at the last 16 and ESPNFC blogger Brian Homewood gives his verdict on the brighter points of the campaign, as well as what went wrong.

One sentence, World Cup recap

Switzerland, aiming for the last 16, reached their declared target, cast off their "boring" tag and left a young, talented team that should serve incoming coach Vladimir Petkovic for several years to come.

All team assessments

Group Stage: Australia | Bosnia-Herzegovina | Cameroon | Croatia | Ecuador | England | Ghana | Honduras | Italy | Iran
Ivory Coast Japan | Portugal | Russia | South Korea | Spain
Round of 16: Algeria | Chile | Greece | Mexico
Nigeria | Switzerland | Uruguay | United States
Quarterfinals: Colombia | France | Belgium | Costa Rica
Semifinals: Brazil | Netherlands
Finalists: Argentina
Winners: Germany

Star Man

Xherdan Shaqiri. Switzerland have been expecting great things of the stocky Bayern Munich winger ever since he made his professional debut with FC Basel as a 17-year-old five years ago, and he finally burst onto the world stage with his hat trick against Honduras.

Shaqiri's first goal was one Lionel Messi would have been proud of as he collected the ball, held off a defender's challenge and scored with a dipping shot from outside the penalty area. The other two were coolly taken from passes by Josip Drmic.

Shaqiri had come into the tournament following a disappointing season at Bayern, where he had also been plagued by nagging muscle injuries. He was somewhat short of confidence, took time to get going and at one stage complained that he was getting more than his fair share of criticism. But it all came together against Honduras, where his close control, long-range shooting and incisive passing made him a constant menace to the Central Americans.

Kosovo-born Shaqiri was even billed as the "Alpine Messi" in the run-up to the second round match with Argentina, although no player benefits from being compared to the real thing. He is still only 22, and the big question surrounds his club future; he is not really going to benefit from another season on the bench at Bayern, and he may be better off at a smaller, less volatile club where he can play regularly.

Highlights

The astonishing final minute of the 2-1 win over Ecuador in their opening game was the decisive moment in the campaign. One minute, Switzerland were on the point of going down to a 2-1 defeat, and the next, they were celebrating their first World Cup win over South American opposition.

When Ecuador midfielder Antonio Valencia charged down the Swiss right and centered for Michael Arroyo, a goal looked on the cards. But Arroyo dallied for a second too long and allowed Valon Behrami to make a saving, last-ditch tackle. Behrami then got up and carried the ball out of the defence; he was scythed down by an Ecuador player, but instead of waiting for the free kick, got up and carried on as the referee played the advantage. The counterattack continued, the ball was played out to Ricardo Rodriguez on the left, and his perfect centre was fired in by Haris Seferovic at the far post. It was the moment that effectively sealed Switzerland's place in the second round at the expense of Ecuador, their direct rivals.

Other high points were the 3-0 win over Honduras, where Switzerland had to contend with the hot and humid conditions of Manaus, in what coach Ottmar Hitzfeld described as "suffering." Switzerland will also be remembered for the way they made Argentina toil for their second-round win; they had three chances to take the lead in the first half, and there was a short spell in extra time when the Brazilian fans in the crowd chanted "Ole" as Switzerland passed the ball around in midfield. Diego Benaglio's goalkeeping and more promising performances from left-back Rodriguez will also be fondly remembered.

Xherdan Shaqiri tallied a hat trick in Switzerland's group stage finale versus Honduras.
Xherdan Shaqiri had a good tournament and can build on his performance.

Low Points

The 5-2 defeat against France in their second game is not something outgoing coach Ottmar Hitzfeld will want to dwell on when he looks back over his distinguished career. Two late goals from Blerim Dzemaili and Granit Xhaka made the score more respectable, but in fact it could have been a lot worse. France also missed a penalty and, for the first hour, looked like scoring almost every time they broke forward. Switzerland were ultimately grateful they did not lose by more.

Conceding a goal to Angel Di Maria in the two minutes from the end of extra time against Argentina was a cruel way to go out after they had defended so well. Incredibly, Switzerland then missed three good chances to equalise; Dzemaili headed against the post from point-blank range and could not react in time to steer home the rebound, which bounced off his shin and into touch. Then Shaqiri sent an 18-metre free kick straight into the wall from a position he would normally expect to score from. As assistant coach Michel Pont said, "Football is brutal, brutal, brutal."

Lessons Learned

There is still a bit of a gap in midfield that needs to be addressed. Behrami and Gokhan Inler provide defensive cover in front of a back line of four but lack creativity, and the supply line to Shaqiri, Xhaka and Mehmedi often dries up. Shaqiri has tried to provide this role himself but still needs to adapt to it.

Switzerland also need to learn to accept their limitations. Their high-tempo pressing game can be very difficult for opponents to deal with, but it can leave them exposed at the back, as they discovered against France. They were more cautious against Honduras and Argentina, due respectively to the conditions and the threat posed by Messi and Di Maria, and it seemed to suit them better. Nobody wants to see them go back to their ultracautious style of a few years ago, but they need to find a happy medium.