By Jonathan Birchall
Alongside the stats and pictures on Basel's website's player profiles, there is a simple question asked to each member of the first team squad – ‘where do you see yourself in 10 years?’
South Korean defender Joo Ho Park wants to travel the world. Veteran striker Marco Streller wants to be spending time with his family.
But what of Xherdan Shaqiri, a man who has interested the likes of Liverpool, Juventus and Bayern Munich, and has been touted as European football’s next great winger? “With a top club,” his answer and with it an indication that he himself believes the hype.
He plays like it too, with a bravado and swagger that is borne from far more than youthful fearlessness. The midfielder, who turned 20 in October, has already played over 70 times for the Swiss champions and averages just under a goal every three games for the national team. The visit of the Premier League champions, who need a point in Switzerland to qualify for the knockout stages, seems the perfect stage for him show off his credentials.
Shaqiri was born in the town of Gnjilane in now war-torn eastern Kosovo but moved to Basel as a child with his parents, and played with local club SV Augst from the ages of eight to 10. From there, he joined the Basel youth set-up and went on to win the Nike Premier Cup’s Most Valuable Player award at the age of 15, following in the footsteps of Andres Iniesta and Fernando Torres.
Ever since, the youngster has grown in stature and become a – if not the – key component in the Basel first team, helping them to consecutive league victories in 2009-10 and last season.
By using his low centre of gravity (Shaqiri is not the tallest at 5ft 7in), astonishing close control and rocket of a left foot, the starlet has already started making waves on the continent. With a man of the match performance at the Stadio Olimpico against Roma followed up by a goal in the return tie in Switzerland during the Champions League group stage last term, the winger has proven that he can perform where most his age fall quiet: the highest level.
His efforts in the competition last season were followed up by a quite breathtaking showing in this summer’s European Under-21 Championships, in which he, alongside Thiago Alcantara, lit up the tournament in Denmark. A wonderful solo goal against the hosts set the tone for his fortnight, as he led his side to the final, where they were overcome by the irrepressible Spanish.
The goal which made onlookers sit up and take notice of the young Swiss was his effort against England just over a year ago, when Fabio Capello’s side won 3-1 at St Jakob Park, the place Shaqiri calls home. After collecting the ball on the right wing, the youngster, then only 18, glanced inside as if the hesitant Ashley Cole wasn’t there and lashed a strike past Joe Hart from 20 yards out. It was the inward run of Lionel Messi finished with the clout of Cristiano Ronaldo.
To put one so young alongside the game’s two foremost giants would be foolish, but as with La Liga’s poster boys, Shaqiri has an ability to completely dominate a football match, and how.
Equally impressive is the youngster’s versatility, and he could play anywhere across the midfield against Sir Alex Ferguson’s men at St Jakob Park. The 20-year-old will most likely face Patrice Evra, lining up on the right-hand side, and it will be interesting to see how the Frenchman, so confident against traditional wingers who remain steadfast to the channels, copes with a player comfortable with wandering inwards.
The winger missed the sides' frankly ridiculous 3-3 draw at Old Trafford back in September – a match indicative of United's instability during the group stage. It is the same inconsistency that has left the Red Devils still needing a point to qualify despite a draw that seemed so kind in Monaco back in August.
The eyes of the continent will be on Sir Alex's team, who haven't failed to make it to the knockout stage since 2005 and have participated in thee of the competition's last four finals. The heat is certainly on for the Premier League champions but they will have to share the spotlight with Xherdan Shaqiri, and that’s just the way he likes it.