In Sofia it is still winter at the end of March. The light masts of the Wassil Levski National Stadium rise bleakly into the gray sky. There are no people strolling in the large Borissova Gradina city park that surrounds the stadium. Too cold, too uncomfortable. Bulgaria has been in lockdown again since last Monday.
This is where the Swiss national team starts on Thursday, March 25, 2021, in an international match year, the calendar of which is richly loaded with World Cup qualifications and European Championship finals. Coach Vladimir Petković said regardless of the atmospheric circumstances: “We have a good time ahead of us”.
The group favorite is Italy
When the Swiss speak of the upcoming big games, of the “hammer year”, as Petković put it, they think of the three duels against Italy or the games in June at the European Championship finals – but probably less of those Surrender to Bulgaria and to the home game on Sunday, March 28th, in the empty St. Gallen Kybunpark against Lithuania. Switzerland has little to gain in Sofia today. At the start of the World Cup qualification against number 68 in the FIFA ranking, she is faced with a compulsory task. “The first game is extremely important because it can give positive input,” said Vladimir Petković.
At the end of the way, Switzerland wants to qualify for the World Cup finals in Qatar in late autumn 2022 and also successfully survive the fourth elimination campaign under Petković. In order to do that directly, she has to win in her group. She is not the favorite because Italy is “rated higher than us,” as Petković said. And he admitted: “1st place is a little further away than 2nd place”. Whoever finishes second has to struggle through the playoffs in March 2022 and win two knockout games. “Second place guarantees nothing,” said Vladimir Petković.
Impeccable balance sheet for compulsory tasks
Despite the heavyweight Italy, the Swiss aim to win the group. They see themselves in a position to do so because last year they “made progress” in the Nations League games against Spain and Germany despite a winless 2020, as players and coaches emphasize again and again. Their problem with this is that they are sometimes playing at eye level with the top teams, apart from a win against Portugal without Cristiano Ronaldo in the late summer of 2016, they have little countable to show in qualifying and final matches against them.
Knowing about this flaw, it is all the more important for Switzerland to successfully complete its mandatory tasks. She has become an expert in this area in recent years. In the three elimination campaigns in 2016, 2018 and 2020, Switzerland only lost once to lower-ranking teams. That was against Slovenia in October 2014. Under Vladimir Petković, she won around 75 percent of all qualifying games. If you exclude the games against England (2016 European Championship qualification), Portugal (2018 World Cup qualification) and Denmark (2020 European Championship qualification), the success rate even rises to almost 90 percent.
The Swiss may overestimate their level compared to the best teams, but they are humble enough to face weaker teams seriously and with the necessary seriousness. “You have to show respect for every opponent, otherwise you can quickly skid unnecessarily,” said striker Haris Seferović.
It is not their fault that coaches and players in Sofia do not know exactly what to expect. Bulgaria changed coaches again in the winter after relegating to Division C of the Nations League. Yasen Petrov is the 15th national coach in the last 20 years.
In addition, almost half of the Southeast European squad is made up of debutants. Vladimir Petković will therefore primarily look at his team and adjust the tactics accordingly: “We are playing for victory and want to put the opponent in a situation where he cannot act, but above all has to react”.
Follow the first World Cup qualifier of the Swiss national team from 6 p.m. today in the live ticker on telebasel.ch or in the app.