SAINT-ETIENNE, France (AP) — With a coach who has plied his trade in Italy and a squad of much-traveled players, Switzerland is counting on its international experience for success at the European Championship.
Vladimir Petkovic, who replaced Ottmar Hitzfeld after Switzerland’s defeat by Argentina at the 2014 World Cup, has made some important changes to a side that faces Poland in the last 16 on Saturday.
A former Lazio coach, he has kept Hitzfeld’s defensive mentality while bringing a dash of creativity to a squad of players that also has experience of Serie A soccer.
“Serie A is a very important league at a European level from every perspective,” Petkovic told a news conference on Friday. “We talked about how challenging it was three years ago. But every year Juventus shows it is a very competitive division.”
Solid defending — a key quality in Italy — has sealed Switzerland’s first ever appearance in the knockout stages, with just one goal conceded in the tournament so far.
Petkovic, who has also managed Turkish side Samsunspor, said Serie A had made him a better coach.
“The coaches there really study the opposition two or three times in the course of the week, to try to get the better of their opponents,” he said.
Switzerland captain Stephan Lichtsteiner, now with Juventus after a stint at Lazio, said playing with the Italian champions has given him the chance to train “with some of the best players in the world,” and has helped him “improve a lot as an individual.”
Other Swiss players can draw on their experience of Italian football. Watford midfielder Valon Behrami has played with Genoa, Lazio, Fiorentina and Napoli, while Blerim Dzemaili, currently on loan at Genoa, has played for Parma and Napoli.
Hamburg defender Johan Djourou, who forms a solid center back pairing with Fabian Schaer at Euro 2016, believes that experience of other leagues has been a key ingredient in Switzerland’s success.
“Most of all because the competition is tougher, you need to fight for your spot, and because you are taking on high-caliber players,” said Djourou, who left for Arsenal when he was just 16. “In Germany, a defender has to deal with (Pierre-Emerick) Aubameyang or (Robert) Lewandowski.”
Switzerland’s leading player, Xherdan Shaqiri, is now with Stoke in the Premier League after stints at Bayern Munich and Inter Milan, while upcoming midfielder Granit Xhaka has been signed by Arsenal.
“We are lucky to be split with three big countries (Italy, Germany, France) with different football brands, and we are able to analyze all of that,” Petkovic said. “And if we can then add that into your own side, it can be advantageous.”
Associated Press writer Joseph Wilson in Saint-Etienne contributed to this report.
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