A lot of bluster, and not much of an end result. This is the only conclusion that one can rationally draw from Switzerland’s performance this afternoon, both in the opening ceremony and in the match itself. For their opponents the Czechs, this afternoon’s match must feel like something half-way between a job well done and a smash and grab raid. First up, though, the opening ceremony. This consisted of about sixty-four or so people holding plastic cubes, which changed colour according to which colour was facing upwards. To say that it didn’t work would be something of an understatement. The group of people seemed unable to stay in formation, meaning that, rather looking like that famous British Airways advert from the 1980s (as I expect the intention was), it looked like a giant game of Scrabble that had gone angrily awry. Into this mix, people on those springy stilts that you occasionally see people wearing at the circus. One of them was pretending to be a skier. Four of them were holding up a cow and moving it’s legs. You know the sort of thing.
Once the nonsense was over and done with and the actual match started, it was Switzerland that looked the more impressive of the two teams. The Czechs looked strangely doughy, although they were certainly more incisive than the Swiss, who looked impressive until they got the ball into the final third of the pitch but then lacked anything like a decent final, killer ball. On the occasions that the Swiss did manage to get in clear sight of the Czech goal, they were faced by possibly the best goalkeeper in the world, in Petr Cech. Cech, however, looked strangely uncertain. He has been one of the goalkeepers to criticise the ball being used for the tournament (this always happens, of course – it was Paul Robinson doing the complaining two years ago), and chose to block Alexander Frei’s long range shot with what looked at first glance like a punch, but turned out to have been his fore-arms. Frei was clearly a cut above his Swiss team-mates, providing all of the best goal-scoring opportunities of the half, also shooting narrowly wide. At the other end, Jan Koller (who appears to have been cloned by Czech scientists from the DNA of Will Self and Frankenstein’s monster) was so far off the pace that, when Martin O’Neill commented at half-time that “it would be a good race between me and Koller”, he was only half joking.
The Swiss hopes of winning the match were severely dented right on half-time, when Frei limped off injured, with his tears seeming to indicate a serious problem that may affect his future involvement in the tournament. The Czechs made their big change early in the second half, replacing Koller with Vaclav Sverkos, and the impact was immediate. With more pace up front, the Czechs started to apply serious pressure for the first time in the match, and Bruckner’s subsitution was vindicated in the most obvious way possible with twenty minutes to play, when Sverkos scored the only goal of the match. There was more than an element of fortune about it all. Not only was he half a yard offside when the ball was lobbed over the top to him, but when he did shoot, the ball came off his shin pad, deceiving the Swiss goalkeeper Benaglio. All of this came just a couple of minutes after the best chance of the match fell at the other end of the pitch, when Yakin’s free header from six yards out went wide of the post. One got the feeling that it wasn’t going to be Switzerland’s day. To their credit, the Swiss didn’t drop their heads too much. Their big chance fell with twelve minutes to play. The referee seemed to overlook a clear handball, and the ball fell to Tranquillo Barnetta, whose shot was well saved by Cech. The ball, however, fell loose to Johan Vonlanthen, whose shot (a difficult one, as the ball was at a height that would make it difficult to keep under control) bounced down off the crossbar.
In the dying seconds, the Swiss had another convincing shout for handball inside the penalty area waved away. It wasn’t going to be their day. With Portugal and Turkey still to play, they need an absolute minimum of four points from their remaining matches, and even that might not be enough. They’re likely to have to do this without Frei, who was easily their most impressive player (for the period of time that we saw him for), too. The Czechs, in all honesty , didn’t look much better. Sverkos, who had provided something of a spark when he came on for Koller, went off on a stretcher in the dying seconds, and without the creative outlet of Tomas Rosicky, they looked largely lacking in inspiration, and look likely to be found out against better opposition than Switzerland. The over-riding feeling that I came away from this game with, however, that we might have seen the two teams that are to be eliminated from this group, in spite of the Czechs three points.