Stuttgart - Sunday evening will witness a reunion of old friends as VfB Stuttgart host FC Schalke 04 in Matchday 31's curtain-closer at the Mercedes-Benz Arena (kick-off 15.30 GMT / 17.30 CEST).
'No time for sentiment'
VfB coach Huub Stevens is attempting to save the home side from relegation to Bundesliga 2 - a task which, if he succeeds, could see him go down in Stuttgart folklore. Stevens already holds iconic status at Sunday's opponents Schalke, whose manager Jens Keller cut his own managerial teeth in Stuttgart.
Stevens coached the Royal Blues for seven years, spread over two spells, leading them to their one and only European trophy, the 1997 UEFA Cup. It was a success that earned him the label of ‘coach of the century’ from Schalke supporters, who still remember the Dutchman fondly. These days, however, the 60-year-old has another set of fans to impress, and he insists there will be no room for sentiment this weekend.
“I enjoyed some successful years at Schalke, but I have to put those feelings to one side. Now I need to do my best for Stuttgart. I don’t have time for sentiment. I have to be professional and do my job for my current club,” said the Dutchman, who will be without injured midfield duo Rani Khedira (adductor) and Moritz Leitner (knee).
With eight points from six games, Stevens has effected something of an upturn in Stuttgart’s fortunes since replacing Thomas Schneider in the VfB hot seat on 9 March. Yet their position in the standings - 15th - remains precarious with four games of the campaign remaining, three of which are against teams currently in the top five. After Schalke, Stuttgart travel to Hannover 96 and entertain VfL Wolfsburg, before a final-day trip to champions FC Bayern München.
At present, they are just one point above Hamburger SV, who occupy the relegation play-off spot, yet points will not necessarily be forthcoming against a Royal Blues side unbeaten in seven and fighting rivals Borussia Dortmund for a second-place finish. Keller is also returning to a club that holds a special place in his heart, but, like Stevens, the 43-year-old won’t allow former loyalties to get the better of him this weekend.
Keller: ‘An important game’
“I started out at Stuttgart, first as a player and then a coach and I’m looking forward to going back,” said Keller in his pre-match press conference. “The stakes are high for them and obviously Huub will want to get one over on his former club, but this is also an important game for us and we want to keep our good run going.”
Schalke will be without the injured Kyriakos Papadopoulos and the suspended Julian Draxler, but could welcome Jefferson Farfan back into the starting line-up as they aim to guarantee at least a third-place finish, which will be theirs if Bayer 04 Leverkusen fail to win at 1. FC Nürnberg in Sunday’s early game.
Stuttgart: Ulreich - Schwaab, Rüdiger, Niedermeier, Boka - Gruezo, Gentner - Traore, Didavi, Harnik - Ibisevic
Schalke: Fährmann - Hoogland, Ayhan, Matip, Kolasinac - Boateng, Neustädter - Goretzka, M. Meyer, Farfan - Huntelaar