By Brian Homewood
(Reuters) - One of the finest generations of players Switzerland has ever produced will be at its peak at the World Cup in Russia, raising hopes that the team can reach the last eight of a major tournament after a wait of more than 60 years.
Players such as Ricardo Rodriguez, Fabian Schaer, Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Haris Seferovic are all in their mid-twenties and already have experience at a World Cup and a European championship behind them.
Swiss football is now reaping the rewards of the hard work done in youth development a decade ago which tapped into the potential offered by second-generation immigrants, many from the former Yugoslavia.
The first signs were there in 2009 when Switzerland improbably won the world under-17 championship in Nigeria, and three members of that squad -- Rodriguez, Xhaka and Seferovic -- are regulars in the current team.
Meanwhile, the old defensive tactics which bored fans rigid at the 2006 and 2010 World Cups have been thrown out of the window.
Coach Vladimir Petkovic, himself born in Sarajevo, always sets out to dominate the opposition, whoever they maybe.
Doubts remain, however.
Although Switzerland won 10 out of their 12 World Cup qualifiers, they were flattered by being in a group which included Andorra, Faroe Islands, Latvia and a Hungarian side which imploded during the campaign.
They were soundly beaten by Portugal in Lisbon in one of the only qualifiers that offered a genuinely stiff challenge and needed a hugely controversial penalty to scrape past Northern Ireland 1-0 on aggregate in their play-off.
Xhaka, their midfield general known as Little Einstein, has a worrying tendency for misplaced passes and red cards, captain Stephan Lichtsteiner is permanently on a short fuse and striker Haris Seferovic often misfires.
The Swiss have reached the last 16 at their last two major tournaments but have not made the quarter-finals since the 1954 World Cup which the country hosted.
They have the potential to change that but only if Shaqiri is inspired, Xhaka can avoid defensive and temperamental lapses and Seferovic can take the chances that come his way.
(Editing by Clare Fallon)