By Mark Chaplin
There are times in football when the manner of victory takes second place to the fact that the points are in the bag. Switzerland were made to work extremely hard by Albania to chisel out Wednesday's 3-2 success in Geneva – a result which keeps them top of qualifying Group 10. The Swiss were exciting and infuriating in equal measure, but next summer's UEFA EURO 2004™ finals are now within touching distance.
Switzerland have made significant progress under coach Jakob Kuhn, as demonstrated by their unbeaten record in the qualifiers. A blend of enthusiastic youth and wise experience is lifting them up the European rankings. However, Wednesday's game, played in uncomfortable heat, provided glaring examples of their current strengths and weaknesses.
Playing in a 4-3-1-2 formation, with FC Basel's livewire Hakan Yakin tucked in behind forwards Alexander Frei and Stéphane Chapuisat, and PSV Eindhoven's Johann Vogel returning from injury to take the midfield anchor role, Kuhn's side made their usual vibrant start, taking an early lead through full-back Bernt Haas, but then relaxed and lost their grip for a worrying first-half spell. The same failings had been evident in squandering a two-goal lead against Russia last Saturday.
Albania themselves have made steady progress under German coach Hans-Peter Briegel. Operating in a 3-5-2 system, their neat, purposeful football thoroughly rattled Switzerland's composure in the first half. Igli Tare was a bustling presence up front, Altin Lala threatened with penetrating runs from midfield, and Lala's 24th-minute equaliser was just reward for the visitors' spirited enterprise.
Fragile and lost
For a ten-minute spell after the equaliser, Switzerland looked fragile and lost. Their previously tidy combination play broke down, and Albania threatened to swamp them as they poured forward down both flanks. Arian Bellai caused particular concern wide on the left with his pace and guile.
Frei on target
It was against the run of play that the Swiss hauled themselves back in front. One of their strengths is a front duo – the energetic Frei and wily veteran Chapuisat - who compliment each other perfectly. Frei has hit a rich vein of form for his country, and he turned in Hakan Yakin's shot for his third goal in two games. Having allowed Haas a free near-post header from a corner for the opener, Albania would live to rue the laxness that tarnished their bold efforts.
The second half again demonstrated Swiss inconsistency. Ricardo Cabanas's free-kick 18 minutes from the end looked to have finally subdued the visitors. But again, maddeningly for the coach, Kuhn's men took their foot off the gas, passed sloppily, back-pedalled and gave away an unnecessary penalty close to time. Ervin Skela's conclusive spot-kick set up a tense finale, and blood-pressure levels remained high when Hakan Yakin missed a penalty at the other end in injury time. The final whistle was greeted with some relief on and off the pitch.
Nevertheless, Kuhn can be proud of what he has achieved so far with this team. Most of the players now have solid European experience from playing abroad, and in Hakan Yakin, Frei and Chapuisat, Switzerland possess considerable attacking potency. What Kuhn must now instil in his promising team is the killer instinct which finishes off the opposition when they are down.
KEY PLAYER: Hakan Yakin (Switzerland)
Involved in all three Swiss goals, the skilful Basel forward has been a revelation this season. Hakan Yakin is an astute passer who combines intelligence and vision with a striker's eye for goal. It is no surprise that he has become a target for Europe's major clubs.
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