Switzerland waltzed through to the last 16 of the 2014 FIFA World Cup on Wednesday with an impressive 3-0 win over Honduras, in so doing taking second place in Group E behind France.
That means a round of 16 matchup against Group F winners Argentina, who progressed with a perfect three wins in three games.
Xherdan Shaqiri was always going to be one of the Swiss side's biggest hopes as they came into the tournament, and he came up big for them with a hat-trick against Honduras. However, as much as his form and goals are important, it is only with Switzerland's biggest strength of all, their defence, that they might have a hope of defeating Argentina.
Shaqiri's Fluctuating Form
Bayern Munich wide forward Shaqiri had not seen an awful lot of football domestically this season, leaving him fresh, if underused, for Switzerland's assault on the finals.
His first two performances in the group stage showed plenty of what we've seen of Shaqiri previously: he's inventive, keen to take on opponents and comes alive in the final third. He also consistently looks to play a pass or shot in a positive fashion, rather than keep possession or play toward his own goal.
Shaqiri makes things happen, but his decision-making does not always include the most obvious or best-fit ball for his team in the game, being a rather individualistic player at this point. Needless to say, that worked out perfectly for his opening goal against Honduras.
His link-up play with Josip Drmic was superb. His direct running was the biggest threat for Switzerland and, ultimately, is what sent them through to the last 16.
Switzerland did not get to the World Cup finals by blitzing goals past every opponent, though. Only once did they score more than two goals in a game during qualifying. They totaled 17 in 10 games as they finished top of a group including Iceland, Slovenia, Norway, Albania and Cyprus.
Instead, a fantastically well organised and consistent defence was their main weapon, with just six goals conceded in the 10 games.
That included a crazy 4-4 draw with Iceland; Norway and Albania were the only other sides to score past the Swiss, who kept an amazing seven clean sheets from 10 en route to Brazil.
Looking back at the way they collapsed in the 5-2 defeat to France in their second game at the World Cup, onlookers would be hard-pressed to associate that inept back line with the one that got them on the plane in the first place.
Sublime stuff from France, but how poor do Switzerland look at the back? If this is what Senderos brings to a team, poor Aston Villa.. #SUI— Jonathan Johnson (@Jon_LeGossip) June 20, 2014
Against Honduras, however, the clean sheet operation was back in full force.
Shorn of the injured Steve von Bergen and with Philippe Senderos demoted to the bench, Johan Djourou and Fabian Schar were both rocks at the back, completing 10 interceptions and 10 clearances between them, as per WhoScored.com. Add in left-back Ricardo Rodriguez putting in another impressive performance and making a goal-line clearance, and manager Ottmar Hitzfeld has clearly spent the past few days getting the defensive side of his house in order to ensure progress to the last 16.
That was Honduras though. Argentina will be a step up in quality. In fact, if they hit top form—they haven't yet, despite three wins from three—it will be an entire flight of stairs up.
Lionel Messi continues to be the Argentine hero, pushing them through the group stage almost by himself for the first two-and-a-half games. It will take an incredible amount of effort to stop him. Both of the defensive midfield protectors, Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami, will have to get through a huge amount of running off the ball to first stop the supply line to Messi, and then to chase him once he inevitably picks the ball up behind them anyway.
Reaching the last 16 of the World Cup isn't new for Switzerland, they did it in '94 and 2006. Not since 1954, when they were tournament hosts, have they managed to reach the last eight.
Argentina might be the favourites, but they are beatable in their present form. To do so, it will need arguably the closest performance to perfection that the admirable Swiss defence has summoned over the past two years.
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