Switzerland had shouldered a great weight of history, and the parallels had been clear. One of the nation’s greatest results had come against Romania, in the second group tie at the 1994 World Cup, when a thumping 4-1 victory got them through to the last 16. A guy called Roy Hodgson was their manager at the time.
The challenge here for Vladimir Petkovic and his players was to author a new chapter of success; to fire qualification to the knockout phase of the European Championship for the first time.
They did not manage to emulate Alain Sutter and the class of ‘94 in terms of the result or performance but, in this enlarged championship, where so few teams actually fall at the group phase, the draw – on the back of their victory against Albania last Saturday – ought to be enough to send them through.
Their goal was a beauty, and it came from Admir Mehmedi, after Ricardo Rodriguez’s corner had come back off Johan Djourou. Mehmedi’s technique was perfect and his left-footed shot arrowed into the far corner of the net.
It cancelled out Bogdan Stancu’s 18th-minute penalty for a Romania team that are nothing if not dogged. Switzerland were marginally the better team, and more forward-thinking but Romania showed plenty of resilience. They had four players booked and gave no quarter from the first whistle.
For them, it had been vital not to lose and, with Albania to come, they, too, retain a shot at the last 16.
The 1994 game between the countries, which was their only previous meeting at a major finals, had coloured the build-up and the common thread was the Romania manager, Anghel Iordanescu. Back then, he was in his first managerial spell in charge of his country and now, in his third, he drove one strand of the narrative by making sweeping changes to the team that had performed creditably in the 2-1 loss to France on the opening night.
The biggest surprise was his decision to drop the No10, Nicolae Stanciu, who had been Romania’s best player, while there were three other changes to his front six. Iordanescu has long been a man who has the courage of his convictions.
He was rewarded when his team went ahead early on, although it came against the run of play. As against France, the goal was a penalty. The decision was correct, by the letter of the law, but it still felt a little fussy.
Stephan Lichtsteiner had Alexandru Chipciu’s shirt, and it was no mere grab, as they tussled inside the area and that was enough for the Russian referee Sergei Karasev. As against France, Stancu converted nervelessly.
Switzerland might have been ahead. Haris Seferovic enjoyed two excellent sightings of goal but he could not finish. First, he tricked inside Vlad Chiriches to open up the shooting chance only to put his effort wide of the far post and then, confronted by Ciprian Tatarusanu, he was denied by the goalkeeper.
It was lively and entertaining, if not particularly structured – which was no bad thing for the neutral. Switzerland could wonder how they did not score in the first half and they got forward whenever they could, with Granit Xhaka, Arsenal’s new midfield signing, showing a lovely range of passing. He was named as the man-of-the-match.
Fabian Schar had a pop from 25 yards and he forced Tatarusanu to tip over the crossbar, a little desperately – the shot packed a punch – while Blerim Dzemaili blew a clear chance on 39 minutes. Lichtsteiner lofted over a cross from the right, which was pulled back slightly and Dzemaili had timed his run. He directed his free header wide.
Romania also had their moments in the first half. Chipciu raced up the left, cut inside and banged a right-footed shot just past the far post and only that part of the woodwork kept out Cristian Sapunaru in the 28th minute. Gabriel Torje’s free-kick sparked panic inside the Switzerland area and, having caught a break off Schar, Sapunaru spun and watched his shot clip the upright.
This Romania team has been notoriously parsimonious; they conceded only twice in their 10 qualification ties and Switzerland faced a test of their mettle. They would have been further behind in the 52nd minute were it not for a crucial intervention by Djourou, who stretched to put Torje’s volleyed cross behind for a corner. Behind him, for what would have been a tap-in, had been Claudiu Keseru.
Switzerland restored parity shortly afterwards, at a moment when Breel Embolo was stripped and ready to come on. Embolo had replaced Mehmedi in Switzerland’s victory over Albania and it was easy to think that Petkovic was about the make the same change. After Mehmedi’s rocket had hit the net, Petkovic stood Embolo down. The 19-year-old would replace Seferovic in the 64th minute. The quality of the goal was sufficient to grace any occasion but the game rather fizzled out thereafter.
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