Switzerland has key players primed to peak at World Cup

Swiss national team soccer player Breel Embolo plays the ball during a training session at the AEK FC Training Center, in Athens, Greece, Tuesday, March 20, 2018. Switzerland will face Greece in Athens on March 23, 2018 for a friendly soccer match on preparation for the upcomming 2018 Fifa World Cup in Russia. (Laurent Gillieron/Keystone via AP)

By GRAHAM DUNBAR

AP Sports Writer

GENEVA (AP) Switzerland can look forward to the World Cup with a mostly settled team at a prime age.

Minutes after earning qualification in November, Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic was talking up his team's chances in Russia.

"We don't really set limits for us," Petkovic said after a playoff victory over Northern Ireland. "It could be even to the final."

Then came a tricky draw. Switzerland plays Brazil, the most impressive team in qualifying; Serbia, probably the toughest fourth-seeded team in the tournament; and then Costa Rica, the surprise 2014 quarterfinalists.

If Switzerland was eliminated with two losses before the second weekend even kicked off, it would not be a surprise.

Still, Petkovic can be optimistic, calling on a core of players in their mid-20s with more than 50 national team appearances each.

A possible lineup in Switzerland's opener on June 17 could include nine players who started its last World Cup game four years ago - a 1-0 extra time loss to Argentina in the last 16.

There is tournament experience throughout the Swiss squad, and some interesting World Cup newcomers.

Here are some key issues ahead of this year's World Cup:

Without a reliable and ruthless source of goals, Switzerland has not won a knockout game at any of its six World Cups or European Championships since 2004.

Haris Seferovic could be the team's main hope to fill that role in Russia.

Seferovic has scored 11 goals in 47 appearances ahead of Friday's friendly at Greece. However, a poor showing in the second leg of the playoffs against Northern Ireland provoked boos from home fans in Basel when the Benfica forward was substituted. He is now out of favor at his club.

A standout Champions League game for Basel against Benfica this season launched Dimitri Oberlin's claim for selection. The 20-year-old Oberlin, who has speed and raw technical skills, should make his debut in Greece.

Josip Drmic was set to be Petkovic's best option at Euro 2016 until a knee injury ruled his out. The Borussia Moenchengladbach player is now back in the squad.

Breel Embolo looks to be the most talented option. Born in Cameroon like Oberlin, the 21-year-old Embolo has also been injured since joining Schalke after Switzerland's Euro 2016 exit on penalties.

The selection issue might not be resolved until June. Whoever wins should look to Xherdan Shaqiri and Admir Mehmedi to supply the chances.

Barring injury, the midfield trio should be Valon Behrami, Granit Xhaka and Blerim Dzemaili.

Behrami is heading to his fourth straight World Cup with a vital role as a calming statesman of the squad. He is also now one half of a celebrity Swiss sporting couple, after Olympic skier Lara Gut announced their relationship on her Facebook page this month.

The fullback roles are locked down for Stephan Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodriguez. The 34-year-old Lichtsteiner, who plays for Juventus, also started when Switzerland opened its 2010 World Cup group by beating eventual champion Spain 1-0.

Fast-improving Manuel Akanji could disrupt the central partnership of Fabian Schaer and Johan Djourou. Akanji excelled in the playoff against Northern Ireland, and his consistency in Basel's Champions League group earned a recent transfer to Borussia Dortmund.

Djourou has recovered from injury and is playing with Turkish club Antalyaspor, though Schaer is currently not being picked by his new coach at Deportivo La Coruna, Dutch great Clarence Seedorf.

Yann Sommer has been a consistent first-choice pick since the last World Cup, though the Moenchengladbach `keeper has competition from Dortmund player Roman Buerki.

Buerki could get his chance when Switzerland hosts World Cup-bound Panama on Tuesday.

Asked this week if Sommer was a clear starter, Petkovic said it was a "difficult question" that did not need to be answered before June.

More AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

Updated March 22, 2018

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