COMMENT: ‘The Alpine Messi’ looked revitalised playing from the middle against Honduras and another eye-catching display against Argentina should attract more admiring glances
When Switzerland take on Argentina in Tuesday’s World Cup last-16 clash, the weight of expectation of an entire country will rest squarely on the shoulders of one man. And Lionel Messi will be in the spotlight too.
Xherdan Shaqiri received widespread criticism after his tame showings in his side’s narrow win over Ecuador and resounding defeat by France, with plenty back at home wondering if his broad shoulders could bear the pressure of a nation. A shift in position and a stunning hat-trick later promptly silenced the naysayers.
Deployed in his accustomed wide position for the first two group games, Shaqiri was frustrated by Ecuador and anonymous against France, while Granit Xhaka laboured on and off the ball behind the central striker. Ottmar Hitzfeld had to find a way to unleash the Swiss’ greatest weapon. Against Honduras, he found it.
With Xhaka moved to the wing and Shaqiri deployed behind Josip Drmic, Switzerland’s attack suddenly had a spark. Shaqiri was sharp, skilful, his scintillating hat-trick a brutal and clinical display of finishing prowess. And given the alarming ease with which Nigeria’s Ahmed Musa exploited Argentina through central areas, the 22-year-old could well have given Alejandro Sabella some sleepless nights ahead of Tuesday.
“He really displayed today what he is capable of,” Hitzfeld said after the 3-0 win in Manaus. “This is the confirmation of all the potential he has. “This is a new position for him. In midfield, he needs to run more and this tests his concentration, but we can only congratulate him for scoring three goals.”
In truth, the role was not entirely alien to Shaqiri. Jupp Heynckes more than once deployed him behind Mario Mandzukic during Bayern’s 2012-13 treble-winning season; in his breakthrough performance in Europe, Basel’s 2-1 Champions League win over Manchester United in 2011, he wrestled the ball away from Wayne Rooney just outside the D of United’s area en route to his second assist of the night.
But this was the first indication of a willingness to build the side around the ‘Alpine Messi’ in a starring central role, in much the same way as Brazil and Netherlands have benfited from moving Neymar and Arjen Robben infield. And it showed just why Liverpool, Roma, AC Milan and others are so keen on his signature.
Liverpool have been monitoring Shaqiri ever since he admitted in May that his reduced game time under Pep Guardiola could force him out of Germany and, with the banned Luis Suarez’s future very much in the balance, a deal makes more sense than ever for Brendan Rodgers – especially should his form as a No.10 continue.
Suarez embodied the dynamism which made Liverpool so dangerous last season: speed on the turn, guile on the ball and a willingness to link up with a surging attack. Shaqiri, though in a deeper role, offers much of the same. His three goals against Honduras – a blistering long-rage shot, a cleverly-timed dart and finish and a composed side-foot home following a late run – showcased his remarkable blend of attacking attributes that first shone at Basel in 2009.
“I think Xherdan did his job very well against Honduras, we knew he could play this position,” Switzerland team-mate Admir Mehmedi said. “With a playmaker, we’re a lot more creative in our attacking game. He can spin around very fast and play deep passes.”
Roma, Milan and Juventus have also been credited with an interest in Shaqiri, but a move to Serie A seems unlikely should his transformation continue. He would not suit the 4-3-3 used by Rudi Garcia and considered by Antonio Conte for next season, and though he would make an apt replacement for Kaka, Filippo Inzaghi has a Mario Balotelli-shaped problem to solve before rebuilding work at San Siro can begin in earnest.
Despite boasting Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho and – should the transfer go through – Adam Lallana for competition, Liverpool still represent the better fit for Shaqiri. While it is hard to compare playing stats from last season given he only completed 90 minutes twice in the Bundesliga, his 100 per cent tackle success rate and impressive passing and shooting accuracy prove his suitability to playing at the head of a midfield diamond or in behind Daniel Sturridge, with or without Suarez in the team.
Hitzfeld may have been quizzed incessantly on how he will stop Messi, but Shaqiri could yet have the chance to upstage his Argentina counterpart in Tuesday’s encounter – and you can bet that plenty of eyes to the north and south of the Alps will be keeping a careful watch.