Akanji enduring ‘deep emptiness’ after penalty failure consigns Swiss to painful loss at Euro 2024


That was the instruction on England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford’s water bottle as he prepared to face Manuel Akanji for Switzerland’s first kick in the penalty shootout at the European Championship.

Pickford dived left. And he saved the penalty.

Cue jubilation for England and agony for Akanji, with his being the only failure in the shootout as Switzerland missed another chance to advance to the semifinals of a major tournament for the first time.

After Switzerland’s 5-3 loss in the shootout, a disconsolate Akanji was embraced by his Manchester City teammates John Stones and Phil Foden.

“No words of solace can help him,” Switzerland coach Murat Yakin said. “Deep emptiness, deep sadness.”

Switzerland midfielder Remo Freuler was in tears. So was goalkeeper Yann Sommer.

History had been in the grasp of the most talented Switzerland squad in a generation, perhaps ever.

Leading 1-0 after Breel Embolo’s 75th-minute tap-in, the Swiss moved to within 10 minutes of beating England in regulation time and breaking through the quarterfinal ceiling that had proved beyond the country’s class of 1954 at the World Cup and the team at the Euros in 2021.

Then, from England’s first shot on goal, Bukayo Saka drove in a low, curling shot that flew past many pairs of legs and into the bottom corner.

“That was the only chance,” Yakin said. “Unfortunately there was one situation that led to us conceding one goal.”

Then came the penalty shootout — or “a question of luck,” as the Switzerland coach described it — which his team negotiated well except for Akanji’s failure.

Three years ago at the Euros, Switzerland scored all five of its spot kicks to knock out Kylian Mbappe and France in the last 16, only to lose a shootout to Spain in the quarterfinals following misses by Akanji, Fabian Schar and Ruben Vargas.

The squad this year felt different, though, with leaders like Akanji and Bayer Leverkusen’s Granit Xhaka, who just aren’t used to losing. With Sommer now a Serie A title winner with Inter Milan and previously a Bundesliga champion with Bayern Munich. With Schar a regular with Newcastle and with Embolo such a danger up front after regaining his fitness.

“It’s hard to accept because I think we deserved to go to the semifinal with this team,” Switzerland forward Dan Ndoye. “We had the quality to go further. It hurts, it hurts to lose on penalties like that. It’s cruel.”

Switzerland, a country better associated with winter sports, had no place competing with England deep in a major tournament, Yakin said.

“Even in this game, some said we were the favorites but we will never be the favorites,” he said. “It can be in certain moments that we look like one, but the market value of other teams compared to us is massive.”

Yet, Switzerland’s defense, marshalled superbly by Akanji, was surprisingly comfortable against an England strike force containing superstars like Harry Kane, Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka and Foden, and Yakin’s team had the better of both the second half and extra time.

That was the case even though Xhaka, Switzerland’s midfield general, was held back by a leg injury that almost ruled him out of the game.

“It was a miracle he could even play,” Yakin said.

Yakin wouldn’t be drawn on his future, having been linked to jobs in Saudi Arabia. He has been in charge of the Swiss since August 2021 and proved himself to be a fine tactician, bouncing back well from the humiliation of losing 6-1 to Portugal in the last 16 of the 2022 World Cup.

“Unfortunately now my contract has come to an end, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a continuation,” Yakin said. “My priority is the national team. There have been no conversations or offers from clubs.”


AP Euro 2024: https://apnews.com/hub/euro-2024

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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