Analysis: No hiding for flying Swiss as they reach knockout phase again

DOHA, Dec 2 (Reuters) - Switzerland have been flying under the radar, creeping up almost unnoticed to become part of the soccer elite, but Friday's 3-2 win against Serbia at the World Cup showed that they were now anything but a neutral team.

The Nati defended when they had to, leaving little space for Brazil despite a 1-0 defeat, and produced some exhilarating attacking football against Serbia as Xherdan Shaqiri proved to be an excellent advertisement for the Major League Soccer.

While they have not made it to the quarter-finals of the World Cup since 1954, Switzerland will have absolutely nothing to fear when they take on Portugal in the last 16 on Tuesday.

They have now reached the knockout phase in every World Cup or European championship since 2014 and even if they have never gone past the last eight, they cannot be regarded as a surprise package anymore.

"It's the best Swiss national team that ever existed," coach Murat Yakin said before their opening game, a clinical 1-0 win against Cameroon.

Switzerland have had their fair share of talented players but when Stephane Chapuisat's squad made it to the round of 16 in 1994, and Alexander Frei and co also reached the knockout phase 12 years later, it was considered as a major achievement.

For the generation led by 'pocket rocket' Shaqiri, it is a minimum requirement, a springboard to greatness.

This year, Switzerland, who can also rely on penalty-stopper Yann Sommer between the posts, have already beaten Portugal in the Nations League.

Shaqiri, who put Switzerland in front with a quick deflected shot, has now scored in the last three World Cups, and only two other players have done so - Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

He was also in the build-up of the third as he clipped the decisive ball into the box after Breel Embolo had levelled with his second World Cup goal.

The Kosovo-born Shaqiri, along with Granit Xhaka and Haris Seferovic hail from the Balkans and brought a new culture into the squad.

"The dual nationals have brought an extra touch of soul," former Swiss international Stephane Grichting said.

Adding to the Swiss confidence is their U-17 World Cup campaign in 2009, when they beat Brazil on they way to the title.

Having reached the last eight at the European championship last year, Switzerland might already be looking to get at least one step further than the generation of 1954.

They'd better spell it out, because they cannot hide anymore anyway.

Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Pritha Sarkar

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.