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Champions League Preview: Stuttgart - Barcelona

Kick Off: Tuesday, February 23, 2010. 20:45 CET
Mercedes-Benz Arena, Stuttgart


Gross Improvement


Lying ninth in the Bundesliga, Stuttgart will approach their midweek encounter against Barcelona with some confidence, despite their relatively mediocre league standing.

Die Schwaben’s league form under the charge of Markus Babbel was lamentable. In their opening 15 games of the season they managed only two victories in Bundesliga play, and though they would march through to the Champions League last 16, they only progressed in an unconvincing style from a weak group containing Rangers, Unirea Urziceni and Sevilla.

It wasn’t actually Babbel who would land Stuttgart a spot in the knockout rounds as he had been jettisoned a matter of hours before die Roten met the Romanians in a decisive fixture at the Mercedes-Benz Arena. A comfortable 3-1 success was earned, teeing up Christian Gross perfectly to lead a major improvement in the club’s fortunes.

The Swiss has worked wonders over the winter period, breathing new life into a campaign that previously seemed fraught with danger. In eight top flight games he has claimed six victories and one draw, while his side have found the net 20 times, in comparison to the 12 goals they scored in nearly twice as many fixtures previously.

Undoubtedly Stuttgart, who now occupy a comfortable mid-table position in Germany’s elite, can go into Tuesday’s encounter with hope, having thrashed Koeln 5-1 at the weekend. Barca will, of course, provide a big step up, but the Schwaben have already made giant strides in recent times.

Not At Their Peak

Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona were shocked little over a week ago, when they fell victim to one of Atletico Madrid’s best displays of the season. That 2-1 loss against los Colchoneros represented their first Primera Division reverse of the campaign but la Blaugrana bounced back superbly last weekend, claiming a 4-0 victory over Racing Santander to set themselves up perfectly for the midweek trip to Germany.

Goals from Andres Iniesta, Thierry Henry, Rafael Marquez and Thiago helped the Catalan club, who were badly depleted by injury, to a simple victory, though captain Carles Puyol believes there is room for improvement yet.

“We are always very demanding of ourselves and ask if we are capable of more because the coach knows that we can do better,” he said after that game. “We were perhaps not brilliant but we were practical, but we can still give more.”

Puyol indicated that there is still a great deal of confidence in Barca’s squad, though warned against “expensive errors” in Germany.

The European champions did not qualify to the last 16 with the comfort that might have been expected of them. Defeat against Rubin Kazan at Camp Nou helped make life extremely awkward for Guardiola’s side, who eventually ran out group winners ahead of Inter by claiming a 2-1 success over Dynamo Kiev in matchday 6.

After that somewhat uncertain start to the defence of their title, a little more application and force is needed in Germany.

FORM GUIDE

Stuttgart


WON 5-1 (a) Koeln (Bundesliga, February 20)

LOST 3-1 (h) Hamburg (Bundesliga, February 13)

WON 2-1 (a) Nuremburg (Bundesliga, February 6)

WON 4-1 (h) Borussia Dortmund (Bundesliga, January 31)

WON 1-0 (a) Freiburg (Bundesliga, January 22)

Barcelona

WON 4-0 (h) Racing Santander (Liga, February 20)

LOST 2-1 (a) Atletico Madrid (Liga, February 14)

WON 2-1 (h) Getafe (Liga, February 6)

WON 1-0 (a) Sporting de Gijon (Liga, January 30)

WON 3-0 (a) Valladolid (Liga, January 23)

TEAM NEWS

Stuttgart


Ivorian full-back Boka has picked up a shoulder injury that threatens to rule him out for a month and certainly means he is not fit to feature against Barca. Sami Khedira didn’t play at the weekend, though there are indications he could return for this fixture.

Probable Starting XI:
Lehmann; Celozzi, Tasci, Delpierre, Molinaro; Gebhart, Kuzmanovic, Trasch, Hleb; Cacau, Pogrebnyak

Barcelona

After a couple of weeks of injury torment, things seem to be easing slightly for Guardiola, who has picked a 20-man travelling party. Dimitro Chygrynskiy misses out again due to his ineligibility, but there is better news regarding Xavi and Daniel Alves, who are both involved in the squad.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is doubtful due to an ankle problem, however. Eric Abidal and Seydou Keita aren’t ready to return just yet.

Probable Starting XI:
Valdes; Dani Alves, Puyol, Pique, Maxwell; Xavi, Toure, Iniesta; Messi, Ibrahimovic, Henry

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Stuttgart


After a stunning weekend performance, much of Barca’s defensive focus will be on stopping Brazilian forward Cacau. He scored no less than four times on Saturday and is going into this match on a tidal wave of confidence. However, he has not been able to feature on a regular basis of late and could be relying on adrenaline to get him through Tuesday’s encounter.

Barcelona


A scorer at the weekend, Andres Iniesta will want to continue in such a vein on Tuesday. The effervescent midfielder continues to be an invaluable component for Guardiola’s squad, combining effortlessly with Xavi in the heart of the midfield to keep the team flowing. Positioned 53rd in the Castrol Rankings, the 25-year-old is aiming for his first Champions League goal of the season.

PREDICTION

Back against Barcelona at your peril. The Blaugrana may not be at the very peak of their game at present, but even at 80 per cent they are much too good for many teams. Stuttgart’s recent form has been excellent under Christian Gross, but they’ve yet to meet a side with the quality that the Catalans possess. Die Roten are scoring frequently, which at least gives them hope.

Stuttgart 1-2 Barcelona