Swiss tabloid Blick gave Xherdan Shaqiri a 6 in their report of Switzerland’s 3-0 win against Honduras in Manaus on Wednesday night. If that appears harsh on a player who scored the 50th hat-trick in World Cup history, thereby clinching a place for his country in the last 16 for the first time since 2006, it isn’t. This is the highest rating the paper hands out and denotes a super performance.
Used behind the striker rather than out on the flank as he had been against Ecuador and then France, Shaqiri excelled in the No.10 role. His opening goal, the pick of the bunch, came from a familiar origin - a cut inside followed by a curled shot into the top corner. It was reminiscent of the first he scored for his country in a 3-1 loss to England in Basle four years ago, which made his name on the senior international stage.
However, what really caught the eye in Switzerland’s final group game was the combination play between Shaqiri and their lone striker Josip Drmic, another recipient of a 6 from Blick. It was some of the best at the World Cup so far. Of the 11 passes they exchanged, all were completed and carried a threat. Six led to shots. Two culminated in goals.
Although Drmic didn’t get on the scoresheet, his overall forward play underlined that there is much more to his game than simply finding the back of the net. His ability to hold up the ball, allowing teammates to join in the attack, allied to the ease he shows in going past opponents in 1 v 1s while also keeping the composure required to play a telling final ball makes you understand why Arsenal were seriously interested in acquiring his services before they were beaten to his signature by Bayer Leverkusen. The 17 goals he scored for Nurnberg only tell half the story.
But the night [and the Man of the Match award] belonged to Shaqiri. “I’ll definitely have a glass of red wine [to celebrate],” he said. The youngster could have scored more. Five of his seven shots hit the target. Only Stephan Lichtsteiner had more touches [63 to 62] and he played the full game unlike Shaqiri, who was replaced by Blerim Dzemaili seven minutes from the end.
Much of Switzerland’s play went through the 22-year-old upon whose shoulders the expectations of a nation have rested since he emerged at Basle and inspired Switzerland’s Under-21 team to the final of the European Championships in 2011. Shaqiri is the star of this team. “It bothers me a little,” he admitted to L’Équipe. “But I have come to accept it. It’s true I am in all the adverts on Swiss TV… But I don’t feel all this pressure because I don’t see things that way. You’ll see: there are other good players for Switzerland.”
His generation is one of genuine promise formed in part by second and third generation immigrants. Shaqiri has three flags on his boots representing Switzerland where he grew up, Albania and Kosovo where he was born. “The mixture of different cultures has gone very well,” he explained. “It’s also a strength. Everyone gets on well on and off the pitch. The harmony between the youngsters and veteran players works better than it did four years ago.”
That was Shaqiri’s first World Cup. Coincidentally enough, he played 12 minutes against Honduras and that was it. “I was there to learn, to experience from the inside the long cohabitation [a squad must go through at a major competition] and to discover the World Cup. It was a dream come true. “My first [memory of the World Cup] was 2002. I was 11 and a fan of [the original] Ronaldo. I even copied his haircut! Ronaldo was the big star of that World Cup [scoring eight goals].” Shaqiri could be one in this particular edition of the tournament.
His performances against Ecuador (7.74 rating) and in particular France (6.05), however, weren’t indicative that it would be. Shaqiri arrived in Brazil after a season on the fringes at Bayern [a motivation perhaps behind the talks that his brother has supposedly been having with Liverpool]. It was also injury-hit.
Recurring muscle issues kept him out for long stages, limiting him to 10 starts in the Bundesliga. He returned to training just a fortnight before the end of the club season and only made his comeback in Switzerland’s final warm-up games against Peru. “You have seen how hungry I am to be on the ball,” he said. “I am still gaining in power. I’m thinking about reaching top form at this World Cup.”
Calibre of the opposition aside, Shaqiri’s display against Honduras suggests he is approaching it just in time for the knockout stages. Short and compact, with that low centre of gravity, the Kraftwürfel or Power Cube is similar in body shape to some of the great playmakers. “We have our own Messi!” wrote Blick’s sports editor Felix Bingesser ahead of next Tuesday’s encounter with Argentina in Sao Paulo.
That’s some exaggeration. But if Switzerland can defend like they did in their shock win against Spain in South Africa four years ago rather than in the 5-2 defeat they suffered to France last week, and Drmic and Shaqiri pick up where they left off, another plot-twist could yet be written in this World Cup narrative. That might seem improbable, particularly with Messi getting better and better as this tournament goes on. But in football [and with that Argentina defence being just as ropey as Switzerland’s] anything can happen.
How do you rate Shaqiri and Switzerland's chances against Argentina? Let us know in the comments below