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Out of the frying pan...

Switzerland can't afford any more slip-ups

(Keystone)

After scraping through the preliminary section of the world championships in Sweden, Switzerland's ice hockey team now face a daunting task in the tournament's qualifying round.

Ralph Krueger's Swiss team begin their bid for a quarter-final place on Thursday, with a match against Olympic finalists, the USA. Twenty-four hours after that game, Switzerland are due to take on Olympic champions, Canada, who are so far undefeated in Sweden.

Although most of North America's top stars will be back home competing for the NHL's Stanley Cup, the two Olympic finalists look more than capable of seeing off a young Swiss team which has struggled to impose itself in Sweden.

Having opened their world championship campaign with two defeats, against Germany and the Czech Republic, Switzerland enter the qualifying round without a single point.

Free from relegation

By beating Japan in their last preliminary match, the Swiss team are at least free from the threat of relegation. To progress to the last eight, though, the side will have to pull off a major upset against at least one of the North American sides before winning their final qualifying game against Latvia.

The Latvians are also looking strong though. Buoyed by a vociferous army of supporters, not to mention the presence of NHL players such as Sergejs Zoltoks and Sandis Ozolins, the Balkan team look more likely to spring a surprise in Sweden than the current Swiss side.

"I think we had a tough time in the beginning here," defender Julien Vauclair admitted to swissinfo after the win over Japan, "but the important thing is that the pressure is off us and we just want to win some points now."

"We have two tough games against Canada and the USA," Vauclair added. "But we've come through in the past and anything is possible."

Weakened

Unlike at previous world championships, however, this year's Swiss squad has been weakened by events off the ice.

Krueger has yet to lift an international ban on former stars Marcel Jenni and Reto von Arx after the two players embarked on an all-night drinking spree during Switzerland's disappointing Olympic campaign.

Von Arx's Davos team-mate Michel Riesen subsequently announced his withdrawal from the world championship squad in a show of support for his colleagues.

With three senior players missing, the Swiss squad are having to rely more than ever on youthful exuberance. On recent evidence, that may not be enough for a place in the quarter-finals.

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