Switzerland ready to rise to big occasion
Finally the waiting is over. Almost two years since Switzerland last played a competitive match, the co-hosts kick off UEFA EURO 2008 against the Czech Republic determined to hit the ground running.
Köbi Kuhn's side departed the 2006 FIFA World Cup with a whimper, failing to score a single penalty in their shoot-out defeat by Ukraine in the last 16. Now they need to begin with a bang. A positive result will galvanise a nation approaching the tournament more in hope than expectation. Kuhn said the supporters will act as a "12th man" in the tight confines of St. Jakob-Park and as he embarks on the final challenge of his coaching career, the 64-year-old is excited by the prospect of what lies ahead.
"In training we have played with great enthusiasm, commitment and desire," said Kuhn. "It's great fun to be with this squad, to prepare for the EURO and to get started. The first match is absolutely vital. It is going to be difficult, we're aware of that, but we'll try to play the best football we can and try to win every game." Kuhn's preparations have been overshadowed by serious illness to his wife Alice, but he has drawn strength from the support of those around him. "Everyone stands behind me and supports me wherever they can and that gives confidence."
Switzerland's co-hosts Austria will be watching with interest to see how their neighbours fare. Of all the countries to have staged the tournament since 1984, only Belgium in 2000 have not reached the semi-finals. Home advantage, though, has its downsides too. Portugal froze as Greece crashed their opening party in Porto four years ago and the Czech Republic will be looking to do the same thing here.
Coach Karel Brückner, though, has had to adjust his side following the withdrawal of captain Tomá Rosickı through injury last month, and he is still keeping his revised XI a closely guarded secret. "We have various alternatives but I'm not going to discuss that further," said Brückner, whose team were semi-finalists in 2004. "Our players are ready. We're well-prepared and have an experienced team." Brückner, who like Kuhn will step down at the end of the tournament, has a full squad to choose from with the exception of flu-victim Zdeněk Pospěch, and should start with Václav Svěrko and Stanislav Vlček either side of Jan Koller in a 4-3-3 formation.
Koller recently became the Czech Republic's all-time leading scorer, an achievement matched by Alexander Frei for Switzerland last week. Frei's availability after injury gives Switzerland a huge lift, as does the return of attacking midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta from an ankle problem. There is more concern over the side's third linchpin, Patrick Müller who is still not at full fitness having torn cruciate ligaments in December. Switzerland are a different team with the 31-year-old's steadying presence at centre-back and Kuhn will talk with him before deciding whether he plays. With Portugal and Turkey lying in wait in Group A, neither side can afford to fluff their lines on first night.