- Switzerland won their Russia 2018 play-off first leg 1-0 in Belfast
- They and Northern Ireland both have contrasting playing styles
- Swiss can use first leg as a blueprint for success
Despite Switzerland winning ten of their 11 qualifying games on the road to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, they have still yet to secure their place at the tournament. But, after a 1-0 victory in the first leg of their play-off tie against Northern Ireland, they now face one final hurdle on Sunday.
Having watched closely, FIFA.com outlines what La Nati must do to book their ticket to Russia.
Control the game once again
Two contrasting playing styles were evident in the encounter in Belfast: Switzerland usually average around 60 per cent possession in their matches, whereas Northern Ireland are normally closer to 40 per cent. Coach Vladimir Petkovic's charges succeeded in making the hosts chase the ball to such an extent that they failed to manage a single shot on target. "We dominated for 70 or 80 minutes but unfortunately we didn't score more goals to return home with a more reassuring lead," said Petkovic. That brings us to the next point.
Be more clinical
Having plenty of possession is all well and good, but it must also be converted into goals. That is a shortcoming Switzerland have wrestled with for a long time, as Granit Xhaka admitted in a recent interview: "We need to be more clinical".
The problem is that Haris Seferovic, who started up front in Northern Ireland, has only scored four times in his last 16 international appearances. Fellow strikers Breel Embolo (Schalke) and Admir Mehmedi (Bayer Leverkusen), meanwhile, are struggling for form with both club and country.
- Each team has won two and drawn one of the five meetings to date
- No country has ever progressed in UEFA play-offs after losing the first leg at home
- Switzerland have won their last seven competitive games on home turf
- Northern Ireland have lost their last three World Cup qualifying matches
- Northern Ireland have never won in Switzerland
Prevent counter-attacks, exploit the spaces
"Against Azerbaijan we had 36 per cent possession here but won 4-0," said Northern Ireland coach Michael O'Neill in the build-up to the first leg. His comment highlights the fact that his side primarily focus on quick forward transitions - something Switzerland managed to almost completely nullify away from home
Petkovic explained how it was done: "We played similarly to the way Germany did in Belfast. It was important that we pressed high up the pitch. That allowed us to stop Northern Ireland playing their preferred long balls forward."
Ricardo Rodriguez, who scored the only goal of the game from the penalty spot, said afterwards that the onus will be on Northern Ireland in the second leg, but neither team will change their fundamental style. Switzerland enjoyed much more room in the closing stages of the first leg, and they will need to exploit that much better in the next meeting.
Get stuck in again
"If Switzerland are scared of strong tackles then that'll put them at a disadvantage," said Urs Siegenthaler, a Swiss national who works as chief analyst for the German national team, in an interview with Blick newspaper prior to the first match. "And amidst all the discussions about being willing to fight, they can't forget that they need to find solutions by playing."
It appears that Switzerland came to the same conclusion themselves, with Fabian Schar receiving a yellow card for a hefty challenge in the opening period of the first leg. "We sent out a signal that we were there, going in for headers, duels and tackles," said Petkovic. With Switzerland asserting themselves physically, they were able to exploit their greater playing ability - something they will need to do once again to have a successful return leg.