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Swiss prepare for Belgrade battle

Ramon Vega (right) says he's feeling confident about Switzerland's chances

(Keystone)

The Swiss football team have held their first training session in Belgrade ahead of Saturday's crucial World Cup qualifying match against Yugoslavia. Enzo Trossero's men will be looking for at least a draw in the Serbian capital to keep their hopes of reaching the 2002 finals alive.

With Switzerland less than halfway through the World Cup qualifying process, Saturday's match will not decide for sure whether the team should book their tickets for the finals in Japan and South Korea. However a defeat in Belgrade would see the Swiss drop to fourth place in the six-team table and make their qualification mission not impossible but certainly highly improbable.

Drawing with or even beating Yugoslavia is of course the team's stated aim but that clearly won't be easy against a side currently ranked tenth in the world and fresh from their success at reaching the quarter-finals of last summer's European Championships.

"The chance to qualify is still there," Swiss defender Ramon Vega told swissinfo shortly before the team's departure from Zurich airport. "So if we can take that chance, why not?"

After an absence from the national side of more than two years, Vega is now vying with Patrick Müller for a place alongside Stéphane Henchoz in central defence. The former Tottenham player knows that, if selected, he'll be in for a busy night.

"When you play for Swizerland, there's always a lot of pressure on the defence to be honest. But I think that will be especially the case against Yugoslavia because they have some fantastic strikers.

"We'll have to be alert for the full 90 minutes, but if we can come out like a team, I think we'll have a good chance."

Although Switzerland's defence appears to be almost at full strength, Trossero has had to fill a number of holes further up the field.

With his midfield weakened by a number of injuries and suspensions, Trossero will also be without influential striker Kubilay Türkyilmaz, who has retired from the international team, after reportedly suffering racist verbal abuse during Swiss league matches.

The son of a Turkish immigrant, Türkyilmaz has scored more goals for Switzerland than any other player in history. One of his possible replacements is Basel striker, Hakan Yakin, who has more reason than most to understand his colleague's decision.

"I know how he must feel," Yakin told swissinfo, "because I have the same nationality by birth as him. We are both from Turkey. And it is extreme in Switzerland how the spectators treat the opposing team's players, particularly the players who have come from abroad.

"So on the one hand I understand his decision, but I also find it a shame that he's not here because I get on very well with him both as a person and as a player."

With Türkyilmaz gone, Grasshoppers veteran Stéphane Chapuisat will be one of those looking to find a way through the Yugoslav defence, but he admits that he's not expecting to get too many chances on Saturday.

"I think the main thing is that we don't let in any goals," Chapuisat insisted. "If we can keep it tight at the back, the Yugoslavs might leave us some space to grab some chances. That might not be the ideal way for a striker to have to play, but we have to accept it."

Immediately after the match in Belgrade, Switzerland will have to begin their preparations for Wednesday's home game against Luxembourg. Two wins from the two matches could put the side on top of the qualifying table while two defeats would stop the campaign dead.

What's more likely, though, is a couple of results somewhere between those two scenarios. For Swiss football fans dreaming of a place in the finals, there's probably quite a bit more waiting to come.

by Mark Ledsom

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