Stuttgart-Schalke preview

TOMORROW afternoon, inconsistent Stuttgart host a Schalke side who have seen their title challenge disintegrate in the last few weeks. Both sides come into this game on a high, though, with Schalke securing top-spot in their Champions League group on Tuesday, and Stuttgart making it six 1. Bundesliga teams out of six to reach the next round of Europe’s continental cup competitions, albeit after losing at home last night.

However, Stuttgart coach Bruno Labbadia will be hoping his side are a bit better in their league game this weekend than they usually are after European fixtures. So far in the 2012/13 campaign, the Swabian side have lost 3-0 to Freiburg, 4-2 at home to Hannover, 6-1 at Bayern Munich, and 1-0 at home to Wolfsburg following Europa League ties. Most of those games have been played on Sunday too, whereas this weekend, the penultimate round of fixtures in Germany’s top-tier before the winter break, Stuttgart kick-off against Schalke just over 40 hours after completing their match against Molde.

Perhaps the 46-year-old former Bayern Munich, Werder Bremen and Arminia Bielefeld striker will take heart from the fact Stuttgart have won both of their last two league games – something of a hot-streak for the hit-and-miss Mercedes-Benz outfit, who boast one of the league’s top-scoring strikers in Vedad Ibišević. It should be noted, however, that this brace of victories has come against the division’s two worst-performing sides to date: Greuther Fürth, in which Stuttgart were saved by the woodwork and the home side’s profligacy on numerous occasions, and Augsburg. Nevertheless, in the last two seasons, Stuttgart have beaten Schalke in both their 1. Bundesliga home games (3-1 last year, and 1-0 the season before that).

Although this match is a battle between the sides in seventh and fourth place respectively, only three points actually separate them in the table (even if Labbadia’s side’s goal difference is -7, compared to Schalke’s +6). But, if the prospect of ending the day level on points with a side who have spent most of the season in mid-table haunts Huub Stevens and his players, who until recently, spent most of the season in the runners-up spot, they’ll be comforted by the fact Stuttgart struggle to score unless Ibišević finds the net. There’s also the fact Labbadia’s side have only taken a measly eight points from a possible 21 at home so far this season, although Schalke have exactly the same number from the same possible total on the road.

Stevens, a Dutchman who has hinted he won’t be extending his stay as Schalke coach beyond the end of the season, could really do with getting three points this weekend if he’s to avoid a miserable winter break. His side have just two wins from their last nine games, and one of those was a home Champions League tie against Greece’s Olympiacos. However, the 59-year-old’s side have mostly won their 1. Bundesliga games following midweek European fixtures. And, Schalke have recorded highly impressive wins on the road at Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund so far this campaign.

Twenty-one players have played for Schalke in the league this season, four of whom have played a part in every 1. Bundesliga game so far – centre-midfielder Roman Neustädter, attacking-midfielder Lewis Holtby, left-back Christian Fuchs, and the Gelsenkirchen outfit’s own goal-grabbing striker, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. In terms of performance stats in the league, Peruvian winger Jefferson Farfán and Fuchs lead the way in the assists table with five each, followed by Holtby, who has directly set-up three goals. Huntelaar is top-scorer with five goals (a not overly-impressive tally, but one complemented by several goals in the Champions League); Holtby, Neustädter, Farfán and 18-year-old attacking-midfielder Julian Draxler all have three goals to their name. Despite mostly featuring from the bench, the latter player is also the most yellow-carded player at the club: Draxler’s four yellow cards surprisingly put him above the combative Jermaine Jones, who has picked up a mere three bookings.

Schalke tend to play in a 4-2-3-1 system, and it’s hard to see Stevens ditching that this weekend. The coach made a controversial choice last weekend, dropping goalkeeper Lars Unnerstall and replacing him with Timo Hildebrand – a player who won the title with Stuttgart in 2007, a fitting climax to his eight years at the club. Although culpable for Borussia Mönchengladbach’s goal in the sides’ 1-1 draw last week, Hildebrand made amends in the game versus Montpellier during the week, probably securing his place between the posts tomorrow. As an aside, Christoph Metzelder also featured and did well during the game in France on Tuesday, potentially putting himself in contention for an appearance at Stuttgart – a city just over four hours’ drive from Gelsenkirchen.

Labbadia, meanwhile, tends to veer between setting his side out in 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1 systems. The breakout player this season has been Austrian midfielder Raphael Holzhauser, who has the build, confidence and playing style of someone older than 19. Ibrahima Traoré has been another revelation after some iffy performances last season following his transfer from Augsburg. The Guinea international has played in all bar one of Stuttgart’s league games, and is the club’s highest assist-maker with four (ahead of Ibišević, who has set up three goals). Highly-rated ‘keeper Sven Ulreich and centre-midfielder Christian Gentner are the only players to have featured so far in every match, although like Stevens, Labbadia has called upon 21 players.

Fan favourite Ibišević leads the way in the scoring stakes with seven goals, making himself something of a Kevin Kurányi – who scored a number of goals for both Schalke and Stuttgart – for a new generation of fans. Austrian attacker Martin Harnik, meanwhile, has found the net four times, meaning he and the Bosnian striker have bagged 11 of the team’s 17 1. Bundesliga goals. The squad does do some things as a group, mind – while five Stuttgart players have picked up three yellow cards this season, altogether, 16 different players have been booked! Three members of Labbadia’s squad have also been red-carded – Ibišević, Harnik and centre-back Serdar Taşçi. The latter will actually be suspended this weekend, as his sending-off came in last Saturday’s 1-0 win at Fürth (a side coached by Schalke legend Mike Büskens, who no doubt will have been passing on information to his former employers about Stuttgart this week).

On the subject of former Schalke players, Tamás Hajnal spent four years at Schalke between 1998 and 2002, although he got more playing time in a subsequent spell at the club’s fierce rivals, Borussia Dortmund. Tim Hoogland is currently on loan at the Mercedes-Benz-Arena from Schalke, while Romanian striker Ciprian Marica moved to Schalke last season after a relatively successful four years with Stuttgart. The 27-year-old can always discuss his time there with young Schalke centre-back Sead Kolašinac, who had a stint as a youth-teamer at Stuttgart.

Labbadia will be relieved that his squad didn’t sustain a series of injuries from the game against Molde, as next to no players were brought in at Stuttgart over the summer. This is despite the fact the club had something of a clearout, with winger Timo Gebhart leaving for Nuremberg, striker Julian Schieber moving to Dortmund, and defenders Matthieu Delpierre, Khalid Boulahrouz and Stefano Celozzi joining Hoffenheim, Sporting CP in Portugal and Eintracht Frankfurt respectively. As it is, striker Cacau, defensive-midfielder William Kvist and attacker Tunay Torun are all out tomorrow through injury, joining the suspended Taşçi and neglected playmaker Daniel Didavi on the sidelines.

Schalke, meanwhile, who will be without defensive-midfielder Marco Höger, attacking-midfielder Ibrahim Affelay, and Greek centre-back Kyriakos Papadopoulos for the trip to Stuttgart, were a little busier on the transfer acquisition front. The club retained the services of previously loaned attacker Chinedu Obasi (Hoffenheim), and brought in Neustädter from Gladbach, Swiss international winger Tranquillo Barnetta from Bayer Leverkusen, and Afellay on loan from Barcelona. The club did also have a big clearout, but the only player of note to leave was talismanic Spanish striker Raúl. Some may argue that the 35-year-old hasn’t been replaced, but the former Real Madrid man’s departure to the Middle-East does mean Schalke are now able to press with more energy and vigour from the front.

The teams are going to be playing in temperatures as low as minus four degrees tomorrow, so expect an exciting start as everyone looks to warm up. The referee for the game will be Felix Zwayer. The 31-year-old from Berlin has already taken charge of one Stuttgart game this season; the 0-0 draw with Borussia Dortmund at the start of November. He also officiated in Stuttgart’s 2-1 home loss to Hamburg last September, and Schalke’s 1-0 win over Gladbach a month before that.

Stuttgart against Schalke kicks off at 2.30pm (UK time), and can be watched, live, on Bet365.com

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