Stuttgart - Recognised as the two Bundesliga powerhouses in southern Germany, VfB Stuttgart and FC Bayern Munich enjoy a rivalry based more on their respective success down the years than any great geographical proximity. And, set to go head-to-head for the 92nd time, the two sides' meeting on Sunday (kick-off 17:30 CET) promises to be as intriguing and fiercly contested as ever.
Debuts for Lopes and Macheda?
That said, Stuttgart go into it now without a win in their last seven home games against the record titleholders. Head coach Bruno Labbadia, who would like to banish memories of his biggest ever defeat - a 6-1 loss to Bayern on Matchday 2 - nonetheless believes his side have a chance to set the record straight. "We have to go into the game with respect, but without fear. If we keep things extremely tight and compact, anything's possible - even against Bayern," the 46-year-old said.
Stuttgart and Bayern come into the fixture in contrasting form, but Labbadia is hoping to see a more focused performance from his outfit than they served up in the 2-0 loss at Wolfsburg last weekend. The former FCB striker called on his players to perform to the "absolutely top level" required to compete with the "unbelievable quality" die Münchner have at their disposal. At the same time, he expects the crowd at the Mercedes-Benz Arena to play their part on Sunday: "I hope the other 54,000 can help spur us forward."
The only Bundesliga fixture to boast a total all-time attendance of over five million could also provide a grand stage for Felipe Lopes and Federico Macheda to make their debuts. Other than that, injuries mean Gotoku Sakai and Cacau won't have a part to play, while Arthur Boka is on duty with Ivory Coast at the Africa Cup of Nations.
Heynckes expects more
Conversely Bayern head coach Jupp Heynckes has a full squad to choose from, long-term absentee Holger Badstuber aside. Despite his side's emphatic victory earlier this season the 67-year-old is not expecting Sunday's encounter to be "a walk in the park. It's a Bundesliga classic and always very emotionally charged."
Heynckes also believes that an unconvincing performance, similar to their outing against Fürth last weekend, won't suffice, acknowledging that "after our less than brilliant start [to the second half of the season], we must and will improve."
Rotation on the cards?
Bayern aren't expected to make many changes to their first eleven and while Arjen Robben is in line for a return after impressing in training, Mario Mandzukic's form could deny his namesake Gomez a starting berth against his former club. "The team have to get back into the groove again," said Heynckes, who also has Jerome Boateng back at his disposal following a recent suspension.
Stuttgart certainly represent a potential stumbling block for Bayern, but if the Bavarians are successful the result will likely prove to be a big step towards ending their run of two years without a trophy. "If we maintain our level of play, then we'll achieve one of our biggest targets, namely to win the league title," stated Heynckes.
VfB Stuttgart: Ulreich - Rüdiger, Tasci, Niedermeier, Molinaro - Gentner, Kvist, Hajnal - Harnik, Traore - Ibisevic
FC Bayern: Neuer - Lahm, van Buyten, Dante, Alaba - Martinez, Schweinsteiger - Müller, Kroos, Ribery - Mandzukic