By Brian Homewood
BRASILIA, June 25 (Reuters) - Switzerland have been expecting great things of Xherdan Shaqiri for some time and the impish player finally took his place on the world stage with a superb hat-trick in the 3-0 win over Honduras on Wednesday.
For many Swiss fans it has been a long time coming. The cheeky and instinctive Kosovo-born player, who looks as if he might have learned the game on the streets of South America, made his international debut as an 18-year-old and was still a teenager when he was voted Switzerland's Player of the Year in 2011.
Since then, the 22-year-old has shown flashes of brilliance on the international stage, including a hat-trick in a Euro 2012 qualifier against Bulgaria, and for his club Bayern Munich, but has not shone on a consistent basis.
A lack of playing time for Bayern this season coupled with some frustrating muscular injuries had even begun to spark concern that he could become another player of unfulfilled potential.
His first two performances at the World Cup were disappointing and Shaqiri complained about the raised expectations on the eve of Wednesday's game in Manaus. "It doesn't all depend on me," he said. "It gets on my nerves that more critical things are written about me than the others."
But in Manaus, Shaqiri gave the performance that everyone had been waiting for, helping to send the Swiss into the knockout stages as Group E runners-up.
His opening goal after six minutes was not dissimilar to Lionel Messi's effort against Iran as he collected the ball near the touchline, held off his marker, cut inside and fired a dipping left-foot shot into the net from 25 metres.
That was followed by two clinical finishes, both with his left foot, from passes supplied by Josip Drmic to make him the first Switzerland player to score a hat-trick at the World Cup since Josef Huegi against Austria in 1954.
There was much more to his performance than the goals, however.
Shaqiri twice set up clearcut chances for Drmic by cleverly threading the ball through the Honduran rearguard and did not shy away from defensive duties, at one point breaking up a Honduran attack by dispossessing Wilson Palacios near the edge of the Swiss area.
The early strike was also crucial in helping the Swiss cope with the stifling conditions in Manaus.
As coach Ottmar Hitzfeld had announced before the tournament, the Swiss dispensed with their usual pressing in the opponents' half and were happy to sit back and allow Honduras possession.
The Central Americans had 62 percent of the ball while the 34 fouls, 17 from each side, played into the Swiss hands as it broke up play and gave them a breather.
In fact, the Swiss looked far more comfortable playing a waiting game than they did against Ecuador and France, where they tried to take the initiative and were repeatedly caught on the break.
With Argentina to face in their round of sixteen tie on Tuesday, Hitzfeld may be tempted to stick with the more cautious tactics, even in the much cooler conditions of Sao Paulo. (Reporting By Brian Homewood; editing by Justin Palmer)