The fourth official’s board went up to display the No 26. And Stephan Lichtsteiner, who just moments earlier had somehow managed to escape a second yellow card for what was clearly a bookable offence on Rodrigo Palacio, was replaced by Martin Caceres. That was in minute 38 of the November 3 home defeat to Inter and was the last we saw of the Swiss Express until Tuesday’s 3-0 win over Chelsea.
In the two-and-a-half weeks between each appearance, whispers had started to circulate that all was not well between player and Coach Antonio Conte. Links with Paris Saint-Germain re-emerged after a brief summer flirt, with the transfer rumour mill suggesting that an exit as soon as January could take place.
The reality, however, was that Juventus, a side hoping to challenge in Italy and in Europe, are never going to let go of Lichtsteiner mid-season. While true that the club have Caceres and Mauricio Isla who can play in his role, the first is more of a defender than a wing-back and the Chilean is still within the early stages of his comeback following knee ligament damage.
Instead of discussing the decision to drop the 28-year-old from the games against Nordsjaelland, Pescara and Lazio, the key consideration should be the fact that he was returned to the starting XI for Juventus’ most important match of the season to date. That says more about his standing in the squad and where he features in the plans of Conte than his recent omissions.
“I don’t think that the Coach forgot about me,” the former Lazio man stated. “I was disappointed after the Inter game, but I have never had any problems with him. It annoys me when things are written about me that are simply not true. The reality is that you can’t play all of the games when you are a wing-back because it’s a role where you have to work really hard.”
Lichtsteiner was at his marauding best against Chelsea, until he ran out of breath and Juventus switched their primary focus to containment by replacing him with Caceres in the 68th minute. Before that switch, Lichtsteiner chugged up and down that right flank with lung bursting runs, causing the European champions numerous problems with his attacking forays. And he was up against the quality of Ashley Cole too.
Stephan made an instant impact in Turin last season following his €10.5m transfer from the Stadio Olimpico. Initially fielded on the right of a back-four, his attacking inclinations were one of the characteristics which allowed Conte to experiment with a new ploy – the 3-5-2.
It’s a shape which splits critics and, it seems, top tacticians. Just this week Fabio Capello insisted the formation was a 20-year backward step, that it was really a system that was masquerading as a five-man defence. Conte, meanwhile, maintains his 3-5-2 is “super offensive” and that the 4-3-3 he sometimes employed last term is more cautious.
The Russian national boss should have been forced into a re-think after watching the events at the Juventus Stadium this week. Lichtsteiner might be rash at times, he may not have the greatest technical abilities, but it is his commitment down the right as a wing-back, coupled with Kwadwo Asamoah’s on the opposite flank, that seem to give credibility to Conte’s belief over Capello’s.
Lichtsteiner is not the most important cog in the Juve set-up right now, but he is undoubtedly vital to the overall fluidity of a 3-5-2 Old Lady side that, if anything, feed off his energy and simultaneously benefit because of it.