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Alpine Messi can move mountains for the Swiss

'WE have our own Messi," declared the Swiss tabloid newspaper, Blick, after Xherdan Shaqiri had put his side through to the last 16 of the World Cup with a finely-executed hat trick against Honduras.

Xherdan Shaqiri fires home his second in Switzerland's win over Honduras last week. Picture: EPA
Xherdan Shaqiri fires home his second in Switzerland's win over Honduras last week. Picture: EPA

Talk about keeping a lid on expectations.

Shaqiri has been handling such regular comparisons for a while now, though. Even the official website of FIFA, world football's governing body, has taken to describing him as the 'Alpine Messi'.

That particular nickname is more complimentary than other associated monikers such as 'The Magic Dwarf' and it does not require the greatest leap of the imagination to see the similarities between him and the captain of Argentina.

Shaqiri and the mercurial Messi both measure up at 5ft 6½in, both favour the left foot and both relish the opportunity to take a player on.

Shaqiri has even been moved from his more natural wide position into the 'No.10 role' in an attempt to give the Swiss, well-drilled as they are, a little more in the way of creativity.

This afternoon will provide the perfect opportunity to measure just how close the Bayern Munich midfielder truly is to Messi in terms of ability and influence when both men showcase their talents in the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo.

They went toe-to-toe in a friendly match in Berne last February. Shaqiri got on the scoresheet with a terrific top-corner finish, but Messi, as he so often does, stole the limelight with a hat trick on the way to a 3-1 victory.

They are once again likely to shoulder the weight of their respective countries' hopes this time around. Argentina, struggling to offer evidence of any true cohesion, would not have escaped from Group F without their captain scoring four goals in the three games.

Shaqiri's goals against Honduras also signalled his growing presence and the 22-year-old, born in south-eastern Kosovo and transported to Switzerland with his parents as a baby, will be a key performer as his adopted nation attempt to reach the quarter-finals for the first time since they served as hosts in 1954.

"He really displayed what he is capable of against Honduras," said Ottmar Hitzfeld, Switzerland's German coach who took Shaqiri to the last World Cup as an 18-year-old.

"This is the confirmation of all the potential he has. Xherdan wrote a page of history against Honduras. If we put in a similar performance, then we also have a chance against Argentina. He is playing in a new position, of course.

"In midfield, he needs to run more and this tests his concentration, but we can only congratulate him for scoring three goals. He is always calm when he is in possession of the ball. No matter who he is playing against, he is never anxious. He has a great mentality."

Shaqiri's manager at Bayern, Pep Guardiola, has also issued a strong warning to Argentina ahead of this evening's match.

"They must pay close attention to Xherdan," he said. "He's dangerous in the penalty area, because he's quick and can shoot very well.

"At Bayern, he's often only a replacement, but he always does well when he comes on. It's a gift to have a player like him at the club and, in his own country, he's a god."

Guardiola's fulsome praise must, however, be put into context.

Although he did struggle with injury for part of the campaign, Shaqiri made just 17 appearances in the Bundesliga for Bayern last season and spoke just a matter of weeks ago about leaving.

Liverpool are said to have opened negotiations about a potential £15m transfer, but Stefan Effenberg, a legendary figure at Bayern following two successful spells as a player, intervened only last night when pleading with Shaqiri to stay put, identifying him as a natural successor to French midfielder Franck Ribery, who was unable to participate in the World Cup as a result of back trouble.

"If he is fit and has no injury worries, he will prevail sooner or later as a regular player," Effenberg said. "If a player can be used on the right, the left or in the middle, he has a real worth.

"It is important for him to seek dialogue with Pep Guardiola. The coach must tell him whether he plays a big part in the plans.

"If not, he needs to think about a change, but Guardiola knows that Ribery has had injuries and has missed the World Cup."

Shaqiri has already won 13 winners' medals over the course of his career with FC Basle and Bayern. Talented as he may be, though, all eyes are likely to be on Messi tonight. He has been dragging a disappointing Argentina side over the finishing line thus far and it is beginning to look like he is their only hope of living up to the pre-tournament hype and reaching the latter stages.

Hitzfeld, however, insists he will not be singled out.

"Man-to-man marking against Messi? No," said the 65-year-old, set to step down after the competition. "We'll use a very well-functioning network. We must take care of all our essential roles correctly, be ready to anticipate and be error-free. In this way, we can stop Messi."

Whether Argentina can stop Shaqiri remains to be seen.

"It's going to be a great match," said the central figure of all Swiss hopes and aspirations. "This has been a dream, little Switzerland in the World Cup. While we know that we are not the favourites, anything is possible for us."

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