Xherdan Shaqiri’s secret Switzerland target hindered by lack of momentum | Andy Hunter

The Liverpool bit-part player heads into Euro 2020 undercooked but remains a danger to Wales in their opener

Xherdan Shaqiri has set himself a target for Euro 2020, he announced after Switzerland completed their warm-up matches with a 7-0 rout of Liechtenstein last week. When asked to elaborate, however, details were thin on the ground. “This is my secret,” replied the midfielder, who has Switzerland in suspense for reasons beyond his silent ambition.

As with the last European Championship, and the two World Cups either side, the Liverpool playmaker is central to Switzerland’s chances of progressing from a group that opens for them against Wales in Baku on Saturday. And not only on account of operating in the No 10 role in Vladimir Petkovic’s team. At 29 Shaqiri remains their creative influence, the main supply to Breel Embolo, Haris Seferovic or Mario Gavranovic, and the man Switzerland rely on to make a difference on the tournament stage. The concern for Petkovic, and the unknown for Wales, is whether he is in condition to meet those demands again.

Shaqiri’s secret aim could be collective and guiding Switzerland beyond the last 16, where their involvement ended at Euro 2016. It may well be personal, and to deliver a reminder of his talents to potential suitors having become a bit-part player under Jürgen Klopp. A bit-part player with seven league titles in three countries, two Champions League triumphs and two Club World Cup winners’ medals that is. Liverpool rejected approaches for Shaqiri in the past two January windows but with two years remaining on his contract and interest circling again – including from Italy, Switzerland’s other opponents in Group A – they may not resist again this summer.

The responsibility on the former Basel, Bayern Munich, Internazionale and Stoke City midfielder coming into the tournament is greater than his preparations for it. He started only seven games for Liverpool last season, five in the Premier League, with another 15 appearances off the bench. In the three seasons since signing from Stoke for a release clause of £13m there have been 25 starts in all competitions for Klopp’s team. Shaqiri completed 90 minutes twice last season, against Midtjylland and Fulham (on 7 March), and his one goal came against Lincoln in the Carabao Cup nine months ago. They are not the figures of a player in peak form or fitness.

Xherdan Shaqiri was used sparingly by Jürgen Klopp for Liverpool last season.
Xherdan Shaqiri was used sparingly by Jürgen Klopp for Liverpool last season. Photograph: Tim Keeton/AP

That Lincoln game, or what followed, reflects Shaqiri’s Liverpool career in many respects. Handed a deeper midfield role by Klopp, he orchestrated a 7-2 win with a brilliant free-kick for the opening goal, a procession of precision set-pieces and a devastating range of passing. Klopp, having substituted him as a precaution against injury, said: “There is no doubt about Shaqi’s quality – there was never. At the moment everything looks really good and looks really promising.” Shaqiri then missed Liverpool’s next three games with a calf problem. Another chance to build momentum had gone.

Repeat muscle injuries, that the Liverpool manager has attributed to the player’s powerful yet diminutive frame, blighted Shaqiri’s season and drove Klopp to distraction. “He maybe could have played 90 minutes,” Klopp said after Shaqiri produced a sublime assist for Mohamed Salah in the 3-1 win at West Ham in January. “But that’s the problem at the moment: you just don’t know.”

There have been worrying signs in the buildup to the European Championship too. Shaqiri felt pain in a thigh after lasting only 45 minutes of the 2-1 friendly win against USA on 30 May. He was able to start, as captain, in the win against Liechtenstein four days later but was again substituted after 45 minutes. His impact in both friendlies was minimal.

Xherdan Shaqiri

Rob Page, Wales’s caretaker manager, is unlikely to find comfort in the playmaker’s modest preparations, however. Shaqiri’s tournament record with Switzerland demands respect and attention. He fulfilled expectations and scored at the 2018 World Cup, the 2014 World Cup, when a hat-trick against Honduras secured Switzerland’s place in the last 16, and at Euro 2016, when a stunning overhead kick from the edge of the area salvaged a draw against Poland. Granit Xhaka was the only player to miss in the shootout that followed as Poland progressed to the quarter-finals.

Shaqiri was also named in Uefa’s team of the tournament at the 2019 Nations League finals but, despite consistent output on the international stage, his commitment to Switzerland is questioned regularly. A Swiss-Albanian dual national, he stirred controversy at home and in Serbia when celebrating his last-minute winner against them at the 2018 World Cup with a double-headed eagle celebration – similar to that on the Albania flag. Fifa fined him 10,000 Swiss francs and the Football Association of Serbia registered an official complaint about the Kosovo flag on Shaqiri’s right boot. He was left out of Liverpool’s Champions League trip to Red Star Belgrade later that year to avoid inflaming tensions.

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“A lot of people have misunderstood this,” he told the Guardian at the time. “I was born in Kosovo and grew up in Switzerland. Some people think I’m not giving everything for Switzerland because I have the flag of Kosovo on one foot but that is totally wrong. It is a big part of my history, my life history, and will always be with me. The Swiss flag is on my left foot because I score with that.”

Wales have been warned and hopefully, soon, Shaqiri will let us in on his secret.


Andy Hunter

The GuardianTramp

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