How wrong can you be? Senol Gunes’s young Turkey side departed Baku for a presumably awkward inquest in Istanbul after suffering three defeats, conceding eight goals and scoring just one. So much for their pre-tournament status as dark horses.
All things are relative but this was Turkey’s best Group A performance. Ultimately though they could not control Switzerland’s outstanding Xherdan Shaqiri and appeared bamboozled by Vladmir Petkovic’s smart, mid-game decision to switch from a back three to a back four.
Having finished behind Wales on goal difference Petkovic’s side now look well-placed to progress as one of the best third-placed finishers. They certainly started well. With six minutes gone Benfica’s Haris Seferovic received the ball from the influential Steven Zuber and was permitted ample time to swivel before squeezing a low, incisive shot, just inside a post.
The ball’s journey took it through the legs of Merih Demiral and the Turkey defender will surely wince at replays highlighting the sluggishness of his reactions. Many of Gunes’s problems were rooted in midfield where Kaan Ayhan was frequently overrun and his teammates struggled to contain the excellent Breel Embolo.
His blend of snake-hipped movement and intelligent hold-up play subdued the 20,000-odd Turkey fans gathered in Azerbaijan with their misery compounded when Ayhan was once again found wanting and Shaqiri doubled Switzerland’s advantage.
The Liverpool winger unnerved Turkey every time he was in possession and Ayhan and friends looked aghast as Seferovic’s shot was blocked and Zuber sent the ball the scorer’s way.
After taking a high-calibre steadying touch, Shaqiri, just outside the area, used his supposedly weaker right foot to send a subtly curving shot arcing into the top corner. It was a finish that both belonged at the very highest level and emphasised the gargantuan task facing Turkey on a day when they created several chances, albeit mainly from long range.
Unfortunately for Gunes, Yann Sommer, Switzerland’s goalkeeper, proved equal to almost everything thrown at him, saving superbly from Burak Yilmaz and Mert Muldur. At the other end, only a stellar save with an outstretched foot from Ugurcan Cakir came between Shaqiri and another spectacular goal.
It made for entertaining viewing but, not for the first time, Turkey’s defensive vulnerabilities had been cruelly exposed and the slumped, resigned, almost despairing, body language of Gunes’s players as they trudged out for the second half indicated they believed the game was up.
Turkey’s centre-halves, Leicester’s Caglar Soyuncu especially, struggled to second-guess Switzerland’s attacking manoeuvres and relied on Cakir repeatedly baling them out, most notably from Embolo.
Petkovic’s decision to allow Shaqiri a free role in which the so-called “Alpine Messi” drifted between the lines, exploiting hitherto hidden pockets of space, paid rich dividends. A player out of favour with Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool may not be into tracking back and often looks as if he probably dozes off during defensive tutorials but, attacking wise, he is far from workshy.
As he ceaselessly prodded and probed for weaknesses in the Turkish backline, using those quick, clever feet to often dazzling effect, Shaqiri made the difference.
Fenerbahce’s Irfan Kahveci intended to fulfil a similar role for Turkey and the player representing arguably Gunes’s best chance of a minor miracle, briefly dragged his side back into things. Once again the goal came from outside the area, with Kahveci eluding Sommer thanks to a dipping left-foot shot unleashed after his thorough wrong-footing of Ricardo Rodriguez.
Belatedly, Turkey sensed hope but, with Shaqiri around, pushing for an equaliser proved perilous and, sure enough, they came undone on the counterattack. Hats off to Zuber for creating a third goal after playing a cute one-two with Granit Xhaka before crossing for Shaqiri to shoot unerringly, first time and left footed, from just inside the area.
Xhaka subsequently hit the post from a free-kick but, even with a goal difference of minus one, Switzerland had probably done enough to reach the knockout stage. “We needed to win and we reacted so well to the pressure, we played like a proper unit,” said Shaqiri. “My first goal, with my right foot, was very good technique.”