WORLD CUP: Swiss have talent to go far but face tough start
GENEVA (AP) — Switzerland's World Cup prospects are one of the hardest to predict, and also the most intriguing.
Ranked No. 6, the Swiss have enough talented players in the peak years of their careers to go far in Russia.
Coach Vladimir Petkovic confidently said there was no limit to his team's potential only minutes after qualifying in November.
Then came the World Cup draw, with games against Brazil and Serbia putting the Swiss at risk of two quick losses and elimination within days.
After that, 2014 quarterfinalist Costa Rica awaits to close out Group E. At least a 6-0 win over Panama in March showed Petkovic's team can cope with a typically Central American style.
Brazil is favored to advance as Group E winner, and the runner-up will head to St. Petersburg to play the Group F winner — likely to be defending champion Germany.
Switzerland fans have waited a long time to see their expectations exceeded at a major tournament. The team appears good enough to do it this time, but it will be difficult.
Here's a closer look at the Switzerland team:
Among World Cup coaches, Vladimir Petkovic took a less traveled path to Russia. When Joachim Loew took charge of Germany in 2006, Petkovic still had a day job in a charity store while coaching lower-ranked Swiss teams.
Petkovic took his big chance in 2012 to coach Lazio, and soon won the Italian Cup. He was hired for the Switzerland job only when then-Austria coach Marcel Koller could not be tempted home to succeed Ottmar Hitzfeld after the 2014 World Cup.
Seen as a second choice, Petkovic took time to grow into the role of following two-time Champions League winner Hitzfeld.
Now, the Bosnian-born coach has asserted himself with a second straight tournament qualification, leading a team featuring several key players whose parents moved to Switzerland from the former Yugoslavia.
Yann Sommer has been Petkovic's consistent first-choice pick since taking over Diego Benaglio, who retired from the national team after the last World Cup.
Still, the Borussia Moenchengladbach goalkeeper is under pressure from Borussia Dortmund's Roman Buerki.
Petkovic preferred Sommer in his first warmup game, a 1-1 draw with Spain.
Switzerland gets its experienced full backs from Italy: Stephan Lichtsteiner, preparing for his third World Cup, on the right and Ricardo Rodriguez, who has become an increasingly important goal scorer, on the left. After seven straight title-winning seasons with Juventus, Lichtsteiner signed for Arsenal this month.
Fast-improving Manuel Akanji staked his claim for a starting place with impressive displays in the playoffs against Northern Ireland in November. Akanji took his chance when Johan Djourou was injured, and was soon leaving Basel for Dortmund in January. He was picked to face Spain this month, partnering Fabian Schaer.
Schaer formed a solid central partnership with Djourou for most of the nine straight wins in qualifying until a final 2-0 loss to group winner Portugal.
A veteran midfield trio should be Valon Behrami, Granit Xhaka and Blerim Dzemaili — all with more than 60 appearances. Behrami is set for his fourth straight World Cup at the age of 33, one year younger than Lichtsteiner, as the statesman of the squad.
Dzemaili, now back in Serie A with Bologna after a loan spell at the Montreal Impact, has the most attacking role of the three. His last World Cup contribution was an unlucky double close-range miss near the end of extra time in Switzerland's 1-0 loss to Argentina in the round of 16.
A central striker should be flanked by Xherdan Shaqiri to the right and whoever Petkovic chooses to replace first-choice Admir Mehmedi, who will miss the tournament because of injury. Steven Zuber got the role against Spain.
At 26, Shaqiri should be peaking for his third World Cup, though his club, Stoke, slumped to relegation from the Premier League.
The identity of the central striker is perhaps the biggest question for Petkovic.
Haris Seferovic, mostly out of favor at Benfica, is the latest Switzerland forward to be booed by fans. Borussia Moenchengladbach's Josip Drmic is returning from injury.
Breel Embolo, the 21-year-old forward with Champions League-bound Schalke, has not been prolific in two injury-hit Bundesliga seasons.
Switzerland opens against the best team in qualifying, Brazil, on Sunday in Rostov-on-Don. Then there is a long trip west from its base in Tolyatti, Samara, to Kaliningrad to play Serbia on June 22. The team will complete its Group E schedule against Costa Rica in Nizhny Novgorod on June 27.
Goalkeepers: Roman Buerki (Borussia Dortmund), Yvon Mvogo (Leipzig), Yann Sommer (Borussia Moenchengladbach)
Defenders: Manuel Akanji (Borussia Dortmund), Johan Djourou (Antalyaspor), Nico Elvedi (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Michael Lang (Basel), Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus), Jacques-Francois Moubandje (Toulouse), Ricardo Rodriguez (AC Milan), Fabian Schaer (Deportivo La Coruna)
Midfielders: Valon Behrami (Udinese), Blerim Dzemaili (Bologna), Gelson Fernandes (Eintracht Frankfurt), Remo Freuler (Atalanta), Xherdan Shaqiri (Stoke), Granit Xhaka (Arsenal), Denis Zakaria (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Steven Zuber (Hoffenheim)
Forwards: Josip Drmic (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Breel Embolo (Schalke), Mario Gavranovic (Dinamo Zagreb), Haris Seferovic (Benfica)