Stuttgart travel to struggling Wolfsburg in the final round of Bundesliga fixtures before the winter break on Saturday afternoon. Despite an absolutely dreadful record away from home, Wolfsburg have actually won four and drawn one of their league home games so far this season. But, although Stuttgart have only won twice on the road in 2011/12, they’ll take hope from the fact that Felix Magath’s side have only kept one clean sheet at the Volkswagen Arena. Nevertheless, Stuttgart have scored twice and shipped 13 goals in their last five trips to Wolfsburg, where they have not won since 2005, when Mario Gómez secured a 1-0 win. Also playing that day for Stuttgart was current Wolfsburg midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger, who’ll miss Saturday’s tie through injury. Other former Stuttgart players currently on Wolfsburg’s books include Alexander Hleb, Diego Benaglio, and, a man there more recently, Christian Träsch. Not only that, Magath himself is a former Stuttgart coach, enjoying a successful three-year stint there at the start of the new century.
Neither of these sides have the distraction of European football this season, and they also share the record of just one win from their last five games. However, Stuttgart are sitting a bit prettier than their hosts right now, as they’re currently in seventh spot, which is as high up as they can end 2011 in (the lowest Bruno Labbadia’s side can finish is 11th). On the other hand, the highest Wolfsburg could end the year in is 11th place, while if they suffer defeat on Saturday, they might very well find themselves spending Christmas in the relegation zone. Whatever happens, don’t expect a 0-0 draw – the last time Stuttgart were involved in one of those was 25 months ago.
So far, it really has not worked for Magath in his second spell at Wolfsburg, although I do partially agree with his comments in the wake of last weekend’s defeat to Werder Bremen. The veteran coach noted that his side is actually playing quite well when the scoreline is 0-0, but that as soon as they fall behind, the players’ confidence goes and they fall to pieces. That is true to an extent: however, the reason Wolfsburg tend to fall behind is because they play a risky high line at the back – one that’s not only risky in itself, but also because it’s not always enacted with the necessary discipline. Perhaps that’s not surprising, though, given that Magath has used in excess of 30 players this season, including many youngsters.
Ashkan Dejagah has shown occasional flashes of his usefulness in attack, but by and large, the team is reliant on Mario Mandžukić for goals and inspiration. Labbadia, on the other hand, has seen this season that if Martin Harnik is having a bad day, Cacau or Christian Gentner are more than capable of scoring the goals his side needs to keep in touch with the European-place chasing pack. Although Shinji Okazaki and Tamás Hajnal are yet to rediscover the form that made them guaranteed and relied-upon first-teamers last season, other new signings such as William Kvist have brought extra quality to Labbadia’s midfield.
However, the former Bayer Leverkusen coach has serious problems at the back this weekend, with Matthieu Delpierre, Johan Audel, Khalid Boulahrouz, Stefano Celozzi and Cristian Molinaro all ruled out. Antonio Rüdiger, therefore, could be in line for his first-team début at full-back. I saw him play for the Germany U19 side as a left-sided centre-back back in June, and was impressed at how comfortable and classy he was when bringing the ball out from the back. The only other option at full-back – with Arthur Boka assured of at least one spot on the flanks – is Timo Gebhart, who usually plays in midfield.
Labbadia is keeping his cards close to his chest on that decision, and the same applies to his tactics too. Speaking ahead of the tie, the 45-year-old said: “We’ll have to look at how we can best approach this one. Of course, we want to be successful in our final Bundesliga game of the year and take all three points in spite of Wolfsburg’s strength at home. To achieve that goal, we are going to have to do a bit more in all areas of the pitch, and be more effective.”
Magath, renowned as a cold-hearted coach, highlighted the fact that he’s struggling by taking his players bowling this week to boost team spirit. Speaking ahead of the game, the 58-year-old said: “The players are looking forward to this game and are all really pushing one another because they know that in the final game of the year, they can make the situation more acceptable and then enjoy the winter break. They are all highly concentrated in their work. I don’t think any of the lads are allowing their thoughts to wander, they want to perform well one last time this year.”
He added: “The current season has been affected by the fact that I am always connected with the championship win in 2009. When I returned, there was a great deal of euphoria because of that and the belief that everything would fall into place again. We have seen now once again that nothing just works itself out and that we have to work for our success. Work is what I’m all about. That’s what I am capable of, it’s what I always say and it’s what I promise to deliver. I am still convinced that the work we put in will eventually lead to success.”
Some players who won’t be required to put in some of that work tomorrow, however, are Tolga Ciğerci, Patrick Helmes and Thomas Kahlenberg – all of whom are still out in the cold. As well as possibly Chris, and definitely Sebastian Schindzielorz and Hitzlsperger, Hleb is also out injured (and has now been told he can go back to Barcelona next month), so he too will miss the chance to get one over on some of his former teammates. The playmaking onus, therefore, will be on either Venezuelan youngster Yohandry Orozco, or South Korean international Koo Ja-Cheol.
Not that Wolfsburg are necessarily looking to grab their win via a moment of inspiration. Alexander Madlung noted in the build-up to this tie: “There is no reason for us not to beat VfB on Saturday – I’ve nothing against chalking up a scruffy win, either.” The defender-cum-midfielder added: “We will be doing all in our power to ensure that we leave a positive impression. Things are not just going to turn around by themselves, though – there is a lot to be done. It will be important to win the challenges and make use of the chances, which we always seem to have. On Saturday, it will be all about preventing a further slip in the table. That’s something we must avoid at all costs.”
Wolfsburg against Stuttgart kicks off at 2.30pm in the UK, and can be watched, live, on Bet365.com. The referee will be Wolfgang Stark – the official who took charge of Stuttgart’s opening day 3-0 win over Schalke.