It feels like Tranquillo Barnetta has been around for ever. The midfielder made his Bundesliga debut back in the 2004/05 season at the age of 19, and has been part of the German football furniture ever since. He has made more than 200 league appearances for four different teams in that time, but there is a serious danger of his career tailing off.
He first showed his promise with a couple of goals in a brief loan spell at Hannover, having joined Leverkusen in the summer of 2004. Back at the Werkself for the next season, he was a regular starter for over five years, until injuries started to wreak havoc. Barnetta played just 14 times in his last year and a half at Leverkusen, and left for Schalke on a free transfer in the summer of 2012. He managed to regain his fitness in Gelsenkirchen, but strong competition for places saw him feature almost entirely from the bench, and he contributed no goals and just two assists in all competitions. After barely featuring at the start of the new campaign, Barnetta joined Frankfurt for the remainder of the season, but he hasn’t yet had the impact the Eagles were hoping for. Despite getting a lot more playing time, he continues to look blunt in the final third. Never a prolific goalscorer, the left-winger last scored for a club in December 2010. At 28 years of age, and with so much experience, Barnetta should be in his prime right about now, but instead he faces an uncertain future unless he can rediscover the form of his early years.
Considering Barnetta’s decline in the Bundesliga over the last few years, you would not expect him to be a key figure for one of the top seeds at the upcoming World Cup. In fact, he is the most experienced player in the frame for Switzerland’s squad, with 70 caps to his name. Also a veteran of the tournaments in South Africa and Germany, Barnetta is one of several players whose experience will be vital if Switzerland are to perform at a level befitting their FIFA ranking.
The problem the team faces is largely similar to Barnetta’s own: a worrying lack of goals. They are traditionally hard to break down, as eventual champions Spain found out in their opening game in 2010, and only conceded once in three games at the last tournament. Four years earlier they went one better, performing the somewhat bizarre trick of going out without conceding a goal. Impressive, really. Their defeat on penalties to Ukraine in 2006 was indicative of their problems on the biggest stage, but little has changed since then. A look through their squad shows plenty of talent, particularly in midfield, but very little in the way of goalscorers. Perhaps the statistic that no one in the setup has as many international goals as Barnetta’s 10 highlights this best.
He will have support from a series of other German-based players, including a couple of Switzerland’s golden boys. Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder Granit Xhaka is likely to join captain Gökhan Inler in the centre. The 21-year old has had an impressive season so far, and scored twice in qualification. Out wide, Bayern’s pocket rocket Xherdan Shaqiri will provide a major threat. He is undoubtedly the great hope behind the Swiss bid, despite being a bit-part player, for now, in Bayern’s star-studded squad.
The most recognisable face for German fans will be on the bench, rather than the pitch though. Coach Ottmar Hitzfeld is bowing out after the tournament, but if he’s looking to end his career on a high, his team have a lot to live up to. Two Champions Leagues and seven Bundesliga titles make Hitzfeld one of German football’s most decorated coaches ever. Even he probably does not expect to leave Brazil with another winner’s medal, but a run to the latter stages will definitely be on his mind.
That aim is not unrealistic, considering the draw Switzerland were handed. Group E also contains France, Ecuador and Honduras, three teams who are all very much beatable. A lot will depend on which France team turns up; the one that reached the final in two of the last four World Cups, or the shambles that crashed out in humiliation at the other two. There is no doubt they have the quality all over the pitch to do something special, but as recent history shows, their performances are just as dependent on the atmosphere in the squad. As for the other sides, Honduras held the Swiss to a goalless draw at the last World Cup, so this is a match where Hitzfeld’s men need to show an improvement on their last outing. Meanwhile, Ecuador rely heavily on home comforts and may well struggle to assert themselves at low altitude. They failed to win any of their away games in qualifying, scoring just five times in eight matches. The tragic death of striker Chucho Benitez last year could also play a major role. It is impossible to say how his loss will affect the players mentally, but as the team’s top scorer it is clear they will miss him from a footballing perspective.
Switzerland have not reached the Quarter-Finals of the World Cup since they hosted the tournament in 1954, the year of the famous ‘Miracle of Bern’. Breaking that run would be a fine way for Ottmar Hitzfeld to bring the curtain down on his magnificent career, and it is a genuine possibility. However, much like their left midfielder, Switzerland will not get anywhere unless they find some goals.
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