Chelsea’s loss against Arsenal has attached even more significance to this recommencement of the Champions League in Germany on Wednesday. Now nine points behind their North London rivals in the league, Europe represents the only realistic chance for Claudio Ranieri to provide a quick return on Roman Abramovich’s cash.
Sublime at times on the Continent this year, Chelsea will be aiming to replicate their last outing on German soil – a composed two nil win over Besiktas to secure their qualification as leaders of Group G. However they will be keen to avoid the complacency that saw them lose at home to the Turkish outfit earlier in the group.
The match up certainly looks finely balanced on paper. VfB Stuttgart have a perfect record from their home group games, whilst Chelsea won their three away games during qualification for the second round. The Blues meanwhile have eight players already on target this season in the Champions League (second only to Manchester United who have nine) and are going up against one of the most effective defences in Europe this year.
Stuttgart ought to be the fresher of the two sides having enjoyed the customary forty-day break in the German season over the Christmas period. Much like Chelsea, their season has faltered on the domestic front and they now find themselves in third, having been top before Christmas. Going into the game on the back of a 1-0 defeat at relegation strugglers FC Kaiserslautern, the Germans will be looking to do to Chelsea what they did to Manchester United in the second game of the group stage. Their 2-1 victory over United in Germany sent them on their way to second place in the group with twelve points, with their defence receiving praise from all over Europe.
One man who came in for wide acclaim was goalkeeper Timo Hildebrand. The German Under 21 International was key to VfB’s qualification, as well as a run of clean sheets that compares to that of Carlo Cudicini earlier in the season. Hildebrand’s defence is a mix of youth and experience, with the likes of Portuguese Fernando Meira and German Steffan Dangelmayr playing prominent roles. Zvonimir Soldo is the first recognisable name in Stuttgart’s midfield line up. The veteran Croatian has sixty-one caps and plays in a midfield holding role. Hakan Yakin will most likely provide the adventurous side of the German midfield’s game. Chelsea will have to be mindful of his skilful dribbling and creative flair. Kevin Kuranyi represents the sharp edge of the Stuttgart attack. The Brazilian-born German won his first international caps following his impressive displays during the group stages and is the man most likely to punish any defensive errors on Chelsea’s part this Wednesday.
For the travelling Chelsea and manager Claudio Ranieri it is another anxious wait to see which of his stars are available. Having missed the weekend’s London derby with a high temperature, Hernan Crespo may to recover in time to build on his impressive European scoring last season for Inter. Carlo Cudicini hopes to return from the thigh strain that prevented him from facing Arsenal and Damian Duff may also return to the bench following his Achilles injury. The rest of The Blue’s line-up should remain largely unchanged from the one that lost on Saturday, though as ever it is futile trying to predict any starting eleven fielded by the self proclaimed ‘tinkerman.’ One tactical issue worth bearing in mind is the Italian’s occasional preference for a wingbacks formation when playing on the Continent. Ranieri may opt for such an approach following its success against Besiktas last time out.
Overall, Chelsea must be considered favourites to progress to the last eight of the competition. Their blend of International stars will have to be wary however; Stuttgart’s comparatively unknown side’s work ethic and organisation has led many to believe that they might just be another Bayer Leverkusen, who reached the final two years ago with a similarly unrecognised team. The last time the sides met, Gianfranco Zola scored a stunning winner in the Cup Winners Cup final of 1998. Having conceded that the league title is now beyond his team, Ranieri will be hoping that another hero will step forward to propel Chelsea towards their last remaining chance of silverware this season.