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Swiss youngsters face final test

Switzerland's young players are preparing for their first ever European Championships

(Keystone Archive)

Switzerland's under-21 football team will pit themselves against the Czech Republic on Wednesday with just a month to go until the European Championships.

When the championship finals begin on May 16, the Swiss youngsters will have double cause to celebrate. As well as marking Switzerland's first ever appearance at a major under-21 tournament, the competition is also being staged on Swiss soil.

"You can feel the excitement already," head coach Bernard Challendes told swissinfo ahead of Wednesday's friendly match in Zurich. "In many ways the European Championships will be Switzerland's World Cup because the senior side haven't made it to Japan.

"We've already sold more than 15,000 tickets for our game against Italy and 12,000 for our opening match against England so the Swiss people are clearly getting interested."

Czech challenge

Before preparing for England though, Challendes' men must first take on a Czech under-21 side who are considered among the favourites for the European title.

Aiming to frustrate the Swiss forwards on Wednesday will be Sparta Prague goalkeeper Petr Cech, a 19-year-old 'veteran' of no less than 12 Champions League matches. At the other end of the pitch, Cech's Sparta team-mate Lukas Zelenka and Nuremberg's David Jarolim will be looking to keep the Swiss defence busy.

"They are a very, very strong team," reckons Swiss captain Ricardo Cabanas. "The Czechs will be favourites, along with France, to make it through their qualifying round. They'll certainly provide us with a great test, as well as letting us see how far we still have to go to match the world's top sides."

Senior citizens

Cabanas is one of three young players from the Switzerland's senior side who are being 'loaned back' to the under-21s for the European Championships. And with Challendes currently facing a number of injury problems, the availability of Cabanas, Alex Frei and Ludovic Magnin has come as an extreme relief to the Swiss coach.

"It's a struggle at the moment both with the injuries and with the league demands being placed on the players," Challendes admits. "But things would definitely be a lot worse if the senior side had qualified for the World Cup and left us without Cabanas, Frei and Magnin."

"It's a great advantage for us having those three guys here," agrees FC Zurich defender Stephan Keller. "And when you look at the strength of the opposition we'll face next month, it's clear that we need whatever advantage we can get."

Looking ahead to Wednesday's match Challendes said he wasn't planning tactical experiments but wanted "simply to win". His hopes for the European Championships are less concrete however.

"We don't want to set any targets in terms of results next month," Challendes explained, "but rather to set performance targets. Against the likes of Italy and England it would be stupid to say we're aiming to reach the semi-finals or to win a medal, so instead we'll be looking to perform well enough just to give us a chance.

"We'll be modest about our chances going into the finals, but not afraid. We just have to find the best way to disturb these top teams."

by Mark Ledsom


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