When he joined Lille Olympique Sporting Club in 2005, Stephan Lichtsteiner was a little-known Swiss defender. And after three full seasons with his hometown club, Grasshoppers, the 21-year-old right-back had his work cut out to establish himself in an experienced, settled team. However, thanks to his talent and courage, the tall defender wasted no time in cementing a place in coach Claude Puel's starting line-up and becoming a key figure for the northern French outfit.
And though the Swiss international was able to put his
impressive physical stature to good use immediately upon arrival in
Nord-Pas de Calais, his versatility has only come to the fore this
season. Indeed, Lichtsteiner has played at full-back, in midfield
and, more recently, on the wing.
"It's not an entirely new experience for me," he told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. "That said, it's true that I'm adapting better and better to these changes in position and system. We've often played a 4-3-3 formation, so I've tended to attack more and more. And I've felt comfortable wherever I've played." The result is that he has already achieved his highest ever goal tally in a single season, with four in 31 league matches so far.
By contrast, Lille have endured a bumpy ride this campaign. Having got off to a slow start, the northern team sunk to as low as 18th position with 17 matches played. " . But since the start of 2008 things have picked up and we're back to winning ways."
We made it difficult for ourselves at the start of the season. We
conceded too many draws in the opening games to give us little hope
of staying in the title race
It has certainly been a remarkable turnaround. Following their brief flirtation with the relegation zone at the end of 2007, Les Dogues have strung together an eight-match unbeaten streak. In fact, they have only lost two league matches in the last five months of the season and are widely acknowledged to be one of Ligue 1's most attractive sides.
The club's rise up the standings has been arresting, with Puel's men now on the brink of qualifying for the UEFA Cup. Nevertheless, Lichtsteiner makes light of his team's recovery. "At the end of the day, this season only Metz have fallen off the pace. All the other teams in Ligue 1 are very evenly matched, so you can move just as quickly up the table as you can down it. As long as you have plenty of quality in your squad, that is," he added.
Quality is something which Stephan Lichtsteiner has in abundance, enough to make him one of the future mainstays of Jakob Kuhn's squad. Just days before the Switzerland coach announces his 23-man squad for UEFA EURO 2008, there is a twinkle of anticipation in the defender's eye.
" ," said Lichtsteiner, who narrowly missed out on appearing at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™. "So imagine how overjoyed I'd be if I was given the chance to do it at home."
Every footballer dreams of playing in an international tournament
wearing his country's shirt
Unsurprisingly, Lichtsteiner is almost certain to be one of
those called upon to proudly defend the colours of the
Nati at Austria/Switzerland 2008. It will not be an easy
homecoming, however, since Portugal, Czech Republic and Turkey
await them in the first round. "It's an extremely tough
group," admitted the Lille player.
"We'll really have to knuckle down to make sure we're at the top of our game for the first match. It hasn't been easy to prepare these last couple of years, having only played friendly matches, but I'm confident that we have enough quality to progress from our group in first or second place. From that point on we'll do our utmost to go all the way."
Although Switzerland truly believe that their luck is in, they will need all the support they can muster to clinch the trophy. "Our country is normally quite laid-back, so our supporters will have to reveal another side to themselves to really spur us on," concluded Lichtsteiner.