Stephan Lichtsteiner is hard to pin down. An industrious, tough-tackling presence at the back, in a flash the Swiss full-back can be rampaging forward and spreading panic in opposition defences thanks to his skill and technique. Besides performing his defensive duties unflaggingly, over the last year he has set up ten goals for his team-mates in all competitions, netting a further six of his own. His most recent effort was a towering header right into the top corner in the 2-0 friendly victory over Peru on 4 June. However, if Lichtsteiner is unpredictable, the teams he plays for are no less so.
"We had an outstanding season in the league, scoring 102 points and winning all 19 matches at home and 33 out of 38 games overall; the stats speak for themselves. But we can't be satisfied with our results on the European stage," Juventus's undisputed first-choice right-back – formerly of Lille and Lazio – tells FIFA.com. "We failed to get out of the Champions League group stage despite having a reasonably friendly draw. We had a chance to make amends in the Europa League and didn't deliver then either. We had the potential to do better."
The huge gulf between Juve's domestic and European form is a real head-scratcher. Ruthless against the likes of Napoli, Roma and AC Milan, the Old Lady stumbled against FC Copenhagen and Galatasaray in the UEFA Champions League and then Benfica in the UEFA Europa League semi-finals, missing out on a final on home turf in Turin. "We're largely responsible for that failure. We perform with more focus and confidence in the league, while in Europe, small details play a bigger role and we haven't been able to work them in our favour. We made too many individual errors this year, but I'm convinced we won't repeat them next season," argues the Swiss Express, so nicknamed due to his constant shuttling up and down the right flank.
I think Switzerland can give any big team a tough game.
In the meantime, the Bianconeri's long wait for a return to the Champions League winner's circle goes on. It has been 11 years now since they last reached the showpiece: an eternity for a club with such pedigree. What are these struggles down to? "Financially speaking, clearly the top Italian clubs, including Juve, can't keep up with the big boys in Spain, England and France", Lichtsteiner notes. "However, we can't use that as an excuse. Dortmund reached the Champions League final last year, Sevilla captured the Europa League this season, Atletico Madrid won the La Liga title and qualified for the Champions League final, and none of these clubs have the sort of budget the big Italian sides do. If success has smiled on them, why shouldn't it smile on us?"
Far from running like clockwork, Switzerland are another enigma. Sitting sixth in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, making them Europe's third highest representatives, they nevertheless have a frustrating tendency to blow hot and cold. "Considering the size of our population, I think Switzerland are doing excellent work in all regards and have a very impressive talent pool to draw from. In fact, I think we're not far off the top nations on that front", Lichtsteiner stresses. "We haven't exploited our full potential yet. We have to follow the lead set by the best and that's exactly what we're trying to do, but we need to be more consistent in our performances against the so-called 'weaker' sides."
This is a pressing issue: "It's something we really need to improve on. I think Switzerland can give any big team a tough game. At the same time, the 'smaller' countries still feel they have a chance against us. We still have trouble creating openings and forcing the pace, but we're working on it." These shortcomings are summed up by the fact that over the last year or so Die Nati have shown that they can get the better of Brazil (in a 1-0 win last August), but have also been held 0-0 by Cyprus (in March 2013) and beaten 2-1 by Korea Republic (last November). This patchy sequence brings to mind the Helvetians' campaign at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa where, after opening with a 1-0 victory over eventual champions Spain, they were knocked out at the group stage as a result of a 1-0 loss to Chile and a goalless draw against Honduras.
"The players involved have gained more experience and grown more mature since then. At the same time, some very talented youngsters have come along and played a part, significantly raising the bar within the team. All in all, the team is a lot stronger than four years ago," says the full-back, who played in all three of his country's games in South Africa. "This year, we're going to do everything in our power to reach the Round of 16, ideally by topping our group. It won't be easy, but that's what we have to aim for. After the group stage, anything is possible. I hope we're going to be the surprise package at the World Cup." How big a surprise that would be is another question entirely: when Lichtsteiner is around, we have come to expect the unexpected.