Both Switzerland and Poland will be attempting to seal a first-ever quarter-finals berth as they clash at the Stade Geoffroy Guichard on Saturday afternoon.
Each side certainly did not have it easy to get to this juncture. Switzerland labored against Albania, struggled against Romania, and dug their heels in against France. In total, La Nati scored just two goals. Fabian Schar’s early header was enough to see off the debutants, whilst Admir Mehmedi’s second half equalizer rescued a point against Romania.
Normally, three points are not enough for the knockout rounds. However, 24 teams – instead of the usual 16 – featured at Euro 2016, which allows a lot more wiggle room. Vladimir Petković’s men then headed into their clash with hosts France knowing that just a point would suffice. Mission accomplished.
Finishing second in Group A – without losing – now earns them a clash with Poland. Like the Swiss, Poland were alright, but not spectacular in their group stage campaign. Adam Nawalka’s troops first ground out a win – their first ever – against Northern Ireland. Then, the White Eagles put in an excellent performance against Germany, which earned them a point and effectively a place in the round of 16.
But they weren’t done yet, as they picked up another three points against Ukraine. In fact, Poland finished second only because of their inferior goal differential. And like their upcoming opponents, they are seeking to prolong their historical run for as long as possible.
One player that will be desperate to finally open his account will be Robert Lewandowski. Despite racking up a whopping 13 goals in qualifiers, it has been very frustrating thus far for the Bayern Munich striker. With Poland now in uncharted waters, the team’s skipper is going to be expected to help carry the team into the next round. And given that this is now the knockout stage – where things get really serious – the spotlight will be even brighter. In short, a perfect stage for Lewandowski to show that same excellent form that makes him one of the top strikers in the business.
Thankfully, others have picked up the slack. Both Arkadiusz Milik and Jakub Blaszczykowski’s goals were enough to down Northern Ireland and Ukraine for Poland to pick up six vital points.
Switzerland, too, have their share of notable players. Whilst young Cameroon-born striker Breel Embelo has looked bright, Xherdan Shaqiri has disappointed. Widely viewed as the most promising Swiss football of his generation, the Stoke City man has had a very quiet tournament. And it goes without saying that his team and Swiss fans will need the ex-Bayern Munich midfielder to finally show what earmarked him as his team’s star player if they wish to really start making waves in France.
Now, here are some very interesting stats heading into this unprecedented meeting between Poland and Switzerland. Poland are one of only two sides yet to concede a goal. The other? No, it’s not Italy, it’s Germany. Die Mannschaft are not at their very best, but they still got through without losing – or conceding.
If one’s a Switzerland fan, it’s best to look away now. Out of their past ten meetings, La Nati have won just once, whilst losing four and drawing five. Eight have been friendlies; only two actual competitive fixtures. Switzerland’s solitary win – to date – was on May 11, 1976, when they defeated the Poles 2-1 in a friendly match. And finally, this will be the first tournament match between these two since facing off in qualifiers for Euro 1980.
In terms of personnel, Nawalka will likely have to rely on Lukasz Fabianski, as first-choice keeper Wojciech Szczesny is still struggling with a thigh injury. Young midfielder Bartosz Kapustka has to pay the price for his enthusiasm, as he misses out due to a ban.
As for Switzerland, Mehmedi – who scored that vital equalizer against Albania – is struggling for full fitness. Nonetheless, Petkovic will likely deploy him in the same starting XI used against France. Should he do this, then Embolo will be replacing the misfiring Haris Seferovic as the one to lead the line.
All in all, both Poland and Switzerland are navigating through uncharted territory, but at the end of 90 minutes – or more – one of these knockout debutants will see their Euro campaign end. Will it be the White Eagles or La Nati who will continue their historic run into the quarter-finals?
For all intents and purposes, Poland appear to have the edge. Despite his subdued showings thus far, Lewandowski did not become the first man to score 30 goals in the Bundesliga in almost 40 years by accident. Furthermore, as shown by his poker vs Real Madrid in 2013 and his five goal haul against Wolfsburg in 2015, he is truly a force to be reckoned with.
Switzerland, by contrast, may have secured second, but they were far from impressive against minnows like Romania and Albania. So, if the Bayern ace is on his game, do not be surprised to see Poland cruising into the quarter-finals without much fuss.