It's an old cliche, but the fact remains, if you don’t score, you don’t win. To their cost, Switzerland felt the full force of that pearl of wisdom in Bloemfontein on Friday night. Their passing was often pleasing tp the eye, but too many final passes went astray in their opponents’ final third. That inaccuracy ultimately lay behind the Swiss failing to do better than a scoreless stalemate with Honduras, leaving them agonisingly close and yet so far from progressing from Group H at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™.
More than just ill fortune
"What did we lack? Goals! It was terrific until we reached the edge of the box, but we just weren’t ruthless enough at that point,” a visibly frustrated Hakan Yakin told FIFA after the match at Free State stadium. "We’re obviously devastated now, because we started out determined to win by two clear goals and qualify for the knockout round. But we were unlucky on the night."
However, ill fortune cannot be the sole reason for Switzerland’s early exit from the tournament. Coach Ottmar Hitzfeld was certainly having none of it, as he told FIFA.com: "Goalscoring has generally been our biggest problem recently. We lack the killer instinct,” said the coach, a UEFA Champions League winner with both Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich in the past.
Dream start, nightmare finish(ing)
First-choice strike pair Blaise Nkufo and Eren Derdiyok certainly did not lack promising openings on the night, many artfully created by wide man Tranquillo Barnetta. Late sub Alexander Frei also came within inches of handing his side the lead. However, the chances for Hitzfeld’s men generally arose from crosses, while anything through the centre of the park was snuffed out. "Our final passes were poor, so we didn’t deserve to go through,” Barnetta frankly admitted to FIFA.
Nevertheless, Switzerland’s fundamental problems in South Africa run deeper than that. Injuries in the weeks running up to the finals, affecting both first-choice centre-forward Marco Streller and long-serving goal-getter Frei, meant Hitzfeld was obliged to field an almost entirely untried forward line. Streller never even made the trip, and Frei was clearly unfit. Perhaps even more critically, the coach and the players had to cope with the unexpected situation of a dream start which arguably turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing.
The dream start in question was the totally unlooked-for 1-0 win over mighty Spain, arguably still the shock result of the tournament, but one which may well have lulled the Swiss into a false sense of security and unjustified euphoria. Barnetta insisted he and his team-mates were "never blinded” by beating the European champions, but there is no denying expectations were running unrealistically high prior to the meeting with Chile. "Nothing went right in that game,” the Bayer Leverkusen winger ruefully reflected. The match was lost, the pressure mounted, and the Honduras clash became more about overcoming the demons within than forcing the ball over the line come what may.
At the end of the day, Switzerland were given a taste of their own medicine. There was no need to take the initiative against Spain, where Hitzfeld’s entirely justifiable tactic was to play to his team’s counter-attacking strengths, a passive approach requiring less skill and inventiveness than creativity. When it came to Honduras, however, where Frei and Co needed to dominate and show authority, they were very nearly beaten by a team deploying the weapons they themselves favour. Switzerland’s record in South Africa shows only one goal against in three matches, but with only one goal to their credit, it is perhaps unsurprising they failed to progress.