Switzerland have beaten Bulgaria 3-1 in the sixth of eight qualification matches for the 2012 European Football Championship.
Three goals from 19-year-old Xherdan Shaqiri mean the Swiss can still come second in Group G and thus book a place in the play-offs – as long as they beat Wales on October 7 and then Montenegro four days later (see “Who will qualify?” box).
In a battle of German managers – Ottmar Hitzfeld for Switzerland against Lothar Matthäus for Bulgaria – Hitzfeld fielded only four players who took part in the goalless draw between the two sides in March in Sofia.
Lichtsteiner, Ziegler, Inler and Dzemaili all took to the grass at St Jakob’s Park stadium in Basel on Tuesday; the others have either retired (Frei, Streller, Grichting) or been injured (Stocker, von Bergen), banned (Behrami) or replaced (Wölfli).
Switzerland, ranked 30th in the world rankings, were big favourite with the bookmakers going into the match against a Bulgarian side ranked 51st .
However, the match couldn’t have got off to a worse start for the hosts when Ivan Ivanov poked in a messy corner in the ninth minute.
The rest of the half saw Switzerland unable to convert their superior possession into goals. They were not helped by blatant Bulgarian time-wasting.
It was only two minutes into first-half injury time that the Swiss managed to break the Bulgarian defence. Shaqiri finished a nice move, collecting a return pass from Eren Derdiyok and weaving between two opponents to curl the ball past Mihaylov in the Bulgarian goal.
Earlier, the FC Basel midfielder sparked the Swiss into life, peppering the Bulgarian goal with a series of long-range shots when cutting infield on his left foot before getting the goals he deserved.
For his second, Shaqiri curled a low shot left-footed just inside the far post from 14 metres.
Bulgaria had defender Zhivko Milanov sent off in the 65th minute for a second yellow card.
Shaqiri then notched up a remarkable hat-trick in the 90th minute, firing a powerful left-foot drive into the top-left corner. It was a near-replica of his debut international goal against England into the same net a year ago.
Elsewhere in Group G on Tuesday, top-of-the-group England beat bottom-of-the-group Wales 1-0. Montenegro had the night off.
“That’s my first hat-trick!” said a delighted Shaqiri. “We put in a good performance right from the start. It’s a shame we went behind early on. In the second half we turned it around and deserved to win. We’re on the right track – we just have to continue playing like this.”
For his part, Ottmar Hitzfeld said he’d paid the squad a big compliment.
“We kept cool and continued playing patiently despite the early set back. The lads had everything under control and didn’t give the Bulgarians a chance,” he said.
“After our second goal we were very clever, even if it might not have looked the most beautiful match. Today we took the first step [towards second place] – the next one is in Wales.”
As for Shaqiri, Hitzfeld said one could see he was in good form – “he also played well tactically”.
Switzerland now have a four-week wait before taking on Wales. Ottmar Hitzfeld – and Swiss fans – knows they still have their work cut out, but they will be able to sleep better knowing that their fate is in their own hands.
Switzerland: Benaglio; Lichtsteiner, Djourou, Senderos, Ziegler; Dzemaili, Inler; Shaqiri (92. Ben Khalifa), Granit Xhaka (88. Fernandes), Mehmedi (84. Emeghara); Derdiyok.
Bulgaria: Michailov; Milanov, Iliev, Ivanov, Zanev; Stilian Petrov, Sarmov; Georgiev, Popov, Martin Petrov (61. Gadschev); Genkov (70. Bodurov).end of infobox
Who will qualify?
The nine group winners and the runner-up with the best record against the top five sides in their pool qualify directly for the final tournament. The eight remaining runners-up enter the play-offs.
Teams score three points for a win, one for a draw and nothing for a loss. If two team end up on the same points, the one with the better goal difference goes through.
England have as good as qualified top of Group G so the fight for second place is between Montenegro and Switzerland. Both teams have two matches to play. Montenegro have 11 points, Switzerland 8.
While this looks bad for Switzerland, Montenegro’s next match is against top-of-the-group England, Switzerland’s is against bottom-of-the-group Wales.
Assuming Montenegro lose and Switzerland win, both teams will have 11 points. Everything will then go down to the final match on October 11 in Basel between Switzerland and Montenegro. A draw would be enough for Switzerland.
If Switzerland don’t beat Wales, they could still be all right as long as England beat Montenegro and Switzerland then beat Montenegro.end of infobox
Current Group G standing (matches played/wins/ draws/losses/goals for-against):
1. England 7 5 2 0 15 3 17
2. Montenegro 6 3 2 1 5 3 11
3. Switzerland 6 2 2 2 10 8 8
4. Bulgaria 7 1 2 4 3 11 5
5. Wales 6 1 0 5 3 10 3