By Svend Frandsen & Andrew Haslam
Switzerland have enjoyed a fine start to their qualifying campaign for UEFA EURO 2004™ and are looking to extend their unbeaten run as they travel to Tbilisi to play Georgia.
Jakob Kuhn's side currently top Group 10 with seven points from three games, having already defeated Georgia 4-1 and secured a memorable 2-1 away victory against the Republic of Ireland. Such promising results are symptomatic of the recent renaissance of Swiss football, with FC Basel winning admirers with some spectacular displays in the UEFA Champions League.
In addition to such achievements at senior level, the future also looks bright, with Switzerland emerging victorious in last year's UEFA European Under-17 Championship, while the U21 team reached the semi-finals of their version of the event, and the team remained unbeaten during the UEFA-CAF Meridian Cup earlier this year.
The Swiss will therefore go into the Georgia game in buoyant mood, although Kuhn will be without first-choice goalkeeper Jörg Stiel through suspension and central defender Stéphane Henchoz, ruled out with a hamstring injury.
Stiel will be replaced by Pascal Zuberbühler with Stéphane Chapuisat taking over as captain, while Henchoz's absence will open the way for Raphael Wicky, who is currently on the substitutes' bench at Hamburger SV. "I have no worries about giving Wicky a chance," said Kuhn. "He's an experienced player and he just needs a little vote of confidence to get back on the right track." The Switzerland coach is certainly in a relaxed mood ahead of the game, saying: "We have the experience to keep our cool before a crucial match like this one and
I can sense my squad is bursting with confidence."
In contrast, Georgia's preparations have been turbulent, with the match the last in charge for Alexander Chivadze. The coach will resign after the game, according to Georgian Football Federation president Merab Jordania. "Regardless of the result, Alexander Chivadze will resign. The coaching staff made their decision after Saturday's game with Ireland [a 2-1 home defeat], but were persuaded to wait," he said.
In addition, experienced forward Temur Ketsbaia announced his international retirement on Monday, although Georgia, who have lost both their games so far, can at least welcome back defender Zurab Khizanishvili after suspension.
Wednesday’s other match sees the weekend winners meet in Tirana as the Republic of Ireland visit Albania, who secured a surprise 3-1 home victory against Russia. The result delighted coach Hans-Peter Briegel, who was taking charge for the first time.
"The team deserved to win because they concentrated from the first minute to the last and they did not lose heart," he said, although he urged caution. "As a team from a small country we should not be looking at the overall group situation but the next match with Ireland."
Briegel acknowledged the part the 16,000-strong crowd at the Loro Borici stadium in Shkoder had played in the weekend win. "
The crowd was our 12th man against Russia and I hope that they will do the same for us against Ireland," he said. "This is a very difficult game for us as Ireland are very strong, and they have so many good footballers. But we have a great chance."
Having secured their first points of the campaign, meanwhile, new Ireland coach Brian Kerr is able to welcome back Robbie Keane to the squad after a family bereavement, and his only worry is a slight fitness doubt surrounding Kevin Kilbane, although the Sunderland AFC midfield player in expected to recover from a slight groin strain in time.
Additional reporting by Vakhtang Bzikadze
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