CL Preview: Stuttgart – Barça, Tuesday 2:45pmEST, Fox Sports en Español/Fox Sports HD Affiliate
Seventy-seven. That number sounds big even when you don’t know what the units are. Put on days and you’re suddenly looking at over 2 months. Seventy-seven days since we last played Champions League football. Seventy-seven days since we beat Dynamo Kiev. In that time we’ve won the Club World Cup, recorded infinity plus one injuries*, and have lead the league by as many as 5 points. And now we return to the tournament that cemented us as the team to beat, as the media darlings of last year. Finally.
I’ve missed you, my twice-weekly previews, with your absurd taxing of my mental capabilities (they are rather small, after all) and your always welcome taxing of my liver capabilities. When there’s no on-the-field action to distract them it seems like the Spanish rags can’t get enough of shouting Cesc! Ribéry! Ochocinco! But now we have something to consider between now and Málaga’s visit on Saturday.
And, indeed, it’s a trip to Stuttgart, to southern Germany. The city itself is located in the state of Baden-Württemberg and is known primarily for its vroom-vroom car industry: Porsche is headquartered there and even stole the city’s coat of arms and adapted it to its own needs when it was founded in 1931 (along with some of the Württemberg coat of arms. Mercedes-Benz and its parent company, Daimler AG, are also based in Stuttgart while Bosch is located just outside of the city in Gerlingen.
Stuttgart is, of course, a city beyond its industrial capacity and reputation. Started as a fort in the first century by the Romans near the River Neckar, Stuttgart was invaded by barbarians (I’ll admit something here: I am probably always going to liken these Germanic “barbarians” in my mind to Asterix and Obelix; I’m sorry**), and then finally founded as a proper city sometime in the 10th Century. Obviously there were inhabitants before that, but little is known about the Merovingian settlements that were replaced by large-scale horse breeding and eventually a city proper. The Battle of Lechfeld/Augusburg between the forces of Otto The Great and the Hungarian Bulcsú (homework assignment for those of you nerdy enough to care: did harka Bulcsú have a first name or not? If so, what was it?), which took place roughly 50 miles from Stuttgart on the outskirts of Augsburg, Bavaria, was probably one of the major reasons Germans settled in Stuttgart and eventually became leaders in the car industry. So while Otto may or may not have been the greatest guy in the world–Holy Roman Emperor and all that–he is indirectly responsible for the time I got to ride in a Boxter through the windy hills near Princeton, New Jersey at like a billion miles an hour, so that my hat is off to him.
After the Hungarians were displaced enough to stop invading and destroying things in the area, Stuttgart got to grow up and play with the big boys in 1321 when it became the royal residence of the Württemberg princes, who ended up becoming Dukes of the Holy Roman Empire in 1495, thus making Stuttgart a Duchy. That word looks way too close to Douche-y for my liking, but I’ve never been big on royal titles anyway. Fast forward to 1803, when Stuttgart really became big time by becoming named the capital of Württemberg, a wholey different and more magnificent status than being a mere Duchy. I’m sure there were people who proclaimed that this would last forever, this stunning combination of a faithful citizenry and destiny. Then in 1805 pesky Napoleon Bonaparte came sweeping through, destroyed the Holy Roman Empire, and made Stuttgart the capital of the Kingdom of Württemberg. I’m sure Jon Stewart’s ancestors were all over that gaff from 1803, busting out the daguerreotypes of Count this and Duchy that snickering at the Frenchies and their upstart “Emperor”.
Modern Stuttgart was no less a place of changing names and statuses, going from a major part of Württemberg monarchy’s landholding to the capital of the Free State of Württemberg during the Weimar Republic, then in 1920 was suddenly thrust into the worldwide spotlight when it was made the capital of all of Germany after the Kapp Putsch attempted to destroy the Weimar Republic and reinstall a monarchy. It didn’t last very long and all and Stuttgart returned to being its regional capital. During the Cold War, Stuttgart became the home of Patch Barracks, the headquarters for the US European Command.
Before the major world wars and the founding of the car companies, however, there was September 9, 1893 and the founding of a small sports club that was eventually (in 1912) called Verein für Bewegungsspiele Stuttgart 1893 e. V., or VfB Stuttgart for short. The team began well enough, winning minor championships until the 1930s when they began dominating their regional Baden-Württemberg league. The Bundesliga as we know wasn’t organized until 1963-64, so VfB’s relative lack of trophies is not something to hold against them. They have three championships to their name (83-84, 91-92, and 06-07) as well as some Cup Winners Cup runners-up to be proud of. They also have 2 “German League” titles from before 1963 that are the equivalent of the Bundesliga title.
The same year they joined the regional Württemberg league–1933–they built the Adolf-Hitler-Kampfbahn, which is now the Mercedes-Benz Arena. It currently holds only 52,000 because of its track, but is slated to hold up to 63,000 sometime in 2011 when remodeling is done (with the track removed). It was the site, if your memory is good enough to remember such things, of the 2006 World Cup third place game between Germany and Portugal as well as 4 group matches and England-Ecuador in the round of 16.
Last season Stuttgart were third overall, finishing with 64 points, 3 behind second-place Bayern Munich and 5 behind champions Wolfsburg. Their top scorer was Mario Gomez with 24 goals, who accounted for almost 40% of their 63 total league goals (he has since moved on to Bayern Munich). They currently sit in 9th in the Bundesliga with 31 points from 23 matches, putting them 18 points behind joint leaders Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich. They are, however, on somewhat of a tear, having won 6 of their last 7, which is insane considering they’d won just twice in the previous 16. This past weekend they put a manita on Cologne in an away match (1-5), with Cacau grabbin 4 goals that put him top of their goalscoring chart with 6 total. He’s followed by Pavel Pogrebnyak with 5. They have 32 goals for and 30 against.
A lot of people will claim that domestic form has nothing to do with continental form, but I disagree in at least one way: they’re coming in as ready for us as they’ll ever be and it’s now going to be a fight against a resurgent team rather than a team with its tail between its leg. Obviously Cacau is dangerous (55 goals in 167 league games–a goal every 3 games, or roughly Pedro’s current rate), but Pogrebnyak is typically their lone striker and has notched enough goals this year to make him a point of concern for Guardiola. And if you’re a stathead, his total league goals in all leagues and all teams is 59 in 162 matches–better than Cacau.
Against Colonge they appear to have played a 4-5-1, which probably means they’ll be bringing the heat against us in a similar formation. This is nothing new, of course, because pressuring us with midfielders is basically the only way to survive, so what’s far more interesting to me is who might be playing. For the first 66 minutes against Cologne, there was a particular player–number 23–who can’t help but catch the eye of any Barça fan. Yes, I’m talking about Hleb. The Hlebmeister. The Hlebinator. He Who Doth Hleb.
Yeah, that guy. He’s played in 20 of their 23 matches, recording, and imagine this: zero goals and only 1 assist. Oh that Hleb, he’s so Hleb. I hope he gets put out on the left and runs into King Carles on a full-blooded roar to the ball. I realize that he’s still technically a Barça player on loan, but come on, I just really want to see him get tackled to the ground and look up in dazed confusion as Puyol laughs. I don’t want him to get hurt, but I do want him to have his backside muddied a little bit by both the ground and the sheer terror of seeing the maned one bearing down on him like one of Stephen King’s trucks.
Speaking of mud, has anyone seen a recent match at Stuttgart? I caught one a few weeks ago and it was a sloppy mudpit thanks to the constant snow and footballing. Assuming no improvements, that means a field quite similar to what we dealt with against Atletico Madrid, which, if you read or heard my reactions to that match, you know that I’m not pleased with the state of pitches we’ve been taking to outside of the Camp Nou, so I hope that Stuttgart mans up, to use a bad turn of phrase, and puts out a real field for everyone to play on. It doesn’t have to be sparkling and wide and a red carpet to the quarters, but it should be playable–passing more than 5 yards on the ground shouldn’t be a gamble as to whether or not the ball will hit a divot.
But who do we, the reigning Champions League, um, champions, take to this match? We’re missing Keita, Abidal, Alves, and Xavi, right? Well…
Valdés, Pinto, Puyol, Maxwell, Piqué, Milito, Chygrynskiy, Touré, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Bartra, Jonathan Dos Santos, Jeffren, Messi, Bojan, Pedro, Alves, Ibrahimovic, Henry.
Wait, Xavi and Alves? Holy crap! And Bartra! And JDS! No Keita and Abidal still, but damn, we’ve got Xavi and Alves? I doubt they’ll start, but they’re in the squad and that has to be a boost for everyone else. Another player giving the squad a boost is Ibrahimovic, who is listed as probable by El Mundo Deportivo. I’m thinking that he’ll play, which is a big boost for us despite what I considered to be an effective match by Bojan against Racing. Without Ibra, we did lack some inside-the-box versatility, though our wing play was a bit better. And for the record, I prefer Messi as a winger–his in-the-hole role (take us to rhyme factor 9, Scottie!) wastes his speed and compresses their defense when we should be spreading them out–so I’d like to see a front line that utilizes space more than possession. What Guardiola will think, probably, is that I’m a moron and should stick to writing news bits instead of sticking my nose into his tactical world, but I do think that if we’re without Xavi, we need to play a wider game rather than a short give-and-go game.
And yes, I’m going to echo Kevin’s sentiment from earlier today about Busi being given the Xavi role and Yaya and Iniesta play the, uh, Yaya and Iniesta roles. That frees Messi a little bit, but I still want to see Ibra moving a lot more in front of the midfield to give them some space. For instance, at one point in the Racing match, Bojan broke through onside for a ball that was laid in front of his diagonal run (by Busi I believe, though I’m not sure)–that he was incorrectly called offside is what kept him from going one-on-one with the keeper. Ibra is obviously capable of making that run, but he’s not a super speedster, so his runs aren’t as effective as Bojan’s, in an odd way. He does, of course, provide a physical presence that Bojan simply can’t, but he is slower and holds the ball up more. I’d like to see him get back to his early-season trickery (such as this–note the Ray Hudson freakout) and I don’t know why he’s not as effective in that sense. I’m sure Hector can explain at some point…
So, then, my squad: Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Marquez, Maxwell, The Yaya, Busi, Iniesta, Henry, Ibra, Messi.
Very similar to the starting lineup against Racing, but replacing our little Cuddly Toy with a Man-Size Swedish Ninja. Seems like a nice trade. “No fair!” Stuttgart is yelling in the background, but we’re ignoring them for the moment. They’re not canon fodder by any means, but they’re not the strongest team in the world and we should be able to get by them without an Iniestazo. But going to sleep against them would be a horrendous move because anything can happen over the 180 minutes of this tie.
Official prediction: 1-2, goals by Ibra and Messi. Barça gives up a lame late goal as we take our foot off the pedal.
Time: Coverage starts at 8:30pm local/Stuttgart (kickoff at 8:45), 2:30pm EST/New York. Check your local time here.
TV: In the United States, this match is on live on Fox Soccer en Español, but can also be seen live in English if you have DirectTV (and the correct package, I believe). The game will be re-shown in English on Fox Soccer Channel at 5pm. Update! The game is also being shown live on your local Fox Sports affiliate (in my case MSG+), which means the match will be in high definition. (H/T Lukeisamazing)
Weather: ~37F (2.8C) dropping steadily throughout the match, 30% chance of rain. Update 2! The temperature estimate has been raised to 45F (7.2C) and holding steady throughout the match. That is good news.
*The Yaya counts for infinity minus five, thus the math.
**I’m not the least bit sorry. I love Asterix and Obelix. If you’re like “But they’re Gaelic, not Germanic!” I also don’t care about that. Shut up it’s my reference. Perhaps a more appropriate link would have been Astèrix als Jocs Olímpics.
Updates reprinted here:
1. The game is also being shown live on your local Fox Sports affiliate (in my case MSG+), which means the match will be in high definition (H/T Lukeisamazing)
2. The temperature estimate has been raised to 45F (7.2C) and holding steady throughout the match. That is good news.