BRASÏLIA: Switzerland will look to justify their top seed tag which raised many eyebrows ahead of the draw for the World Cup finals when they take on South American side Ecuador in Brasilia on Sunday in their opening Group E clash. While outside Switzerland there may have been snorts of derision at their seeding, there is a lot of expectation within the country that a team with a core of players from the side that won the Under-17 world title in 2009 in Nigeria can become the first Swiss team to reach the quarterfinals since 1954.
Ecuador will be treated with the respect that comes from having finished ahead of Copa America champions and 2010 World Cup semifinalists Uruguay in South American qualifying. Their players will be extra motivated to emulate their predecessors in 2006 and reach the last 16 as a tribute to their leading scorer Christian Benitez who collapsed and died last year playing for his Qatari club. However, Switzerland’s highly-respected German coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, who is in his last tournament before retiring from the sport that has seen him lift the Champions League twice once with Borussia Dortmund and then with Bayern Munich, believes his side are capable of a big showing and he has a better squad than the one he took to the 2010 finals.
There they started well with a shock 1-0 win over eventual champions Spain but a loss to Chile and then a draw with Honduras, who are in the same group again, saw them depart after the group stage. Hitzfeld, who said earlier in the week he thought it unlikely that there would be a first ever European victory in South America, will look to the wizardry of 22-year-old Xerdan Shaqiri for creativity and 21-year-old striker Josip Drmic. There is the wily experience of Napoli’s defensive midfielder Valon Behrami to add steel to the team and counter Ecuador’s muscular style.
The Swiss are not taking Ecuador lightly as Juventus fullback Stephan Lichtsteiner attested. Ecuador will principally look to Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia, whom coach Reinaldo Rueda appointed captain in the wake of his close friend Benitez dying. However, while he remains from the side that reached the last 16 in 2006 his experience pales into insignificance compared to that of midfielder Edison Mendez who at 35 and with 111 caps is appearing at his and his country’s third World Cup finals. Mendez is keen to finish his long career on a final high - and if the Swiss weren’t already aware of their opponents hunger to win Mendez provided it when he reflected on his childhood and having to scavenge for food.
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