By Marcus Christenson
"There is more to Switzerland than cows, chocolate, snow and banks." Those were the words of FC Basel coach Christian Gross, and the Swiss national team will want to justify that claim when the UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying campaign enters a crucial phase this weekend.
Switzerland can take another couple of steps towards next summer's finals - and greater international recognition - with home wins against Group 10 rivals Russia, whom they meet at Basel's Saint Jakob Park on Saturday, and Albania the following Wednesday.
"These games are very important as they could take the winning team a long way towards qualification," Switzerland coach Jakob Kuhn told uefa.com. The Swiss are bidding to reach their first major tournament since the 1996 UEFA European Championship. They lead Group 10 by two points from Russia, with Albania, who visit the Republic of Ireland in Saturday's other game, a further point behind.
These are games five and six out of eight and this is our chance of gaining a big advantage," Kuhn added. Previously national coach at Under-17 and U21 levels, Kuhn has created a hardworking yet adventurous team. Also in his favour, he says, is the fact he is the country's first Swiss coach in over a decade, following the appointments of Uli Stielike, Roy Hodgson, Artur Jorge and Enzo Trossero.
"The FA has taken on board all the good things a foreign coach brings but I also think that when someone comes in without any prior knowledge, there is never enough time to get to know the players well enough to put the best team out," he said.
"The team has now found its own style of play and that means I don't have to worry too much about how our opponents play. We have a new generation of players coming through, a group who have grown up together and are trying to achieve one big aim."
Unbeaten in four matches so far, including an impressive victory against Ireland in Dublin, Kuhn and his players are now "100 per cent" focused on the task in hand. However, they will have to be "at their best to get something out of the game" against Russia, "a great footballing nation", he warned.
Starting over again
That is because the Russians are still reeling from away defeats by Albania and Georgia. These nullified the effect of highscoring wins against Ireland and the Albanians, and left coach Valeri Gazzaev to say: "The campaign starts all over again."
'A win needed'
Gazzaev has certainly rung the changes. Captain Egor Titov has been dropped, UEFA Cup winner Dmitri Alenichev omitted for tactical reasons, and Marat Izmailov and Alexander Kerzhakov demoted to the U21s. Viktor Onopko, meanwhile, withdrew this week with an injury. "Nobody is in any doubt that Switzerland are a strong team," midfield player Rolan Gusev said. "We need a win in Basel and I am sure the coach will demand the same."
Three points will be the only item on the docket for Ireland too. Brian Kerr's men trail the Swiss by four points, and will need to improve on the 0-0 draw in Tirana in April when the Albanians come to Lansdowne Road. Kerr's assistant Noel O'Reilly said: "We will have a different approach, more up-tempo. We will certainly play a lot differently because over there we didn't play as well as we could."
With matches against Russia and Switzerland to come, the Albania game and next Wednesday's home qualifier against Georgia represent Ireland's best chance of regaining momentum in a group which, at the moment, belongs to Kuhn and company.
Additional reporting by Pavle Gognidze
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