‘A bombshell’. Those were the words used by David Hytner of The Guardian to describe the one thing that could infiltrate and threaten the ‘calm’ of the Switzerland camp at Euro 2016. Vladimir Petkovic’s side had edged a cagey opener against Albania, and maintained control over their qualification from the group phase. Avoid defeat against Romania, and their position would be strengthened further.
A 1-1 draw with the side who almost held France on the opening day represents mission almost accomplished. With four points from their first two games, this looks likely to become the first Swiss side to progress beyond the group stage at a European Championship. But still, that ‘bombshell’ lingered like a dark cloud.
Had Granit Xhaka murdered someone with a slide tackle? Had Haris Seferovic converted a presentable chance? Had Johan Djourou played a full 90 minutes without perennially looking in danger of smashing the ball into his own net?
Or was it Xherdan Shaqiri causing waves in the ever-neutral waters? The 24-year-old had expected to replace Gokhan Inler as captain of the national side this summer, the Leicester midfielder having not even made the selected 23. Instead, Stephan Lichtsteiner was handed the armband, with Xhaka and Valon Behrami instated as deputies. The Stoke winger, for years his country’s most prominent talent, took this as a personal insult from his manager.
“What if the coach of Kosovo wants me as the captain? Of course, I am thinking about it then,” he said earlier this week. With the country of his birth now recognised by FIFA, and handed a place in the qualification stage for the 2018 World Cup, such a warning was stark. After yet another disappointing display against Romania, it was also little more than an empty threat.
At Switzerland’s last major tournament, Shaqiri was the undoubted star. A hat-trick against Honduras inspired them through the group stage, only for them to meet their demise at the hands of eventual runners-up Argentina. Two years later, the winger has carried his indifferent Stoke form onto the international stage. His ‘bombshell’ reads more like the jilted partner pleading for attention with each game – and Switzerland have already moved on with a new man, a better man, a man uninterested in straying.
24 – Xherdan Shaqiri lost possession 24 times, the highest for a player in Romania v Switzerland. Wasteful.
— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) June 15, 2016
The game with Romania was pleading for an elite-level player to take control – Marek Hamsik provided the perfect example of an individual shining in an otherwise unmemorable game only hours earlier. A talent with a Champions League winner’s medal, perhaps. Or one with two Bundesliga titles. Or three Swiss Super Leagues. Or spells with Bayern Munich and Inter Milan. When Switzerland needed someone to step up and prove the difference-maker, Xhaka, not Shaqiri, assumed responsibility.
The amusingly disproportionate 24-year-old is no longer the Next Big Thing, such is the sudden nature of football. Switzerland now look towards Breel Embolo, to Ricardo Rodriguez, to Fabian Schar. They have found their new star in Xhaka, named man of the match for the first two games. Arsenal’s new signing is his country’s new leading light, and he is relishing said mantle. He dominated the midfield in Paris, making 108 passes – at least 38 more than any other player, and three times more than Romania’s highest passer, goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu. No player created more chances (three).
As for Shaqiri, he floundered; he must step up. If he cannot, that ‘bombshell’ will be rendered little more than a dud. That would be very much in keeping with his performances thus far.