Intrigue abounds as improving VfB Stuttgart prepare to host self-styled Bundesliga dinosaurs Hamburger SV on Saturday evening, in a game set to be broadcast live on FOX Sports.
The two former Bundesliga champions were deep in the relegation mire when they last met at the Mercedes-Benz-Arena in April 2015, but are now showing the kind of form they hope will be enough to avoid a repeat of 2014/15’s nerve-jangling dice with the drop.
Stuttgart turn a corner
Two months ago, Stuttgart were not quite so optimistic after a crushing 4-0 home defeat to second-bottom FC Augsburg left them floundering in the relegation play-off spot, with only three wins to show for their first 13 Bundesliga matches of the season. Alexander Zorniger was replaced by Under-23s head coach Jürgen Kramny - initially on an interim basis - and while a 4-0 defeat to Borussia Dortmund did little to lift the mood in the Stuttgart camp, that result has proved the exception to the rule.
Following consolidatory draws against SV Werder Bremen and 1. FSV Mainz 05, Stuttgart enjoyed back-to-back wins for the first time in 2015/16, earning deserved 3-1 victories over VfL Wolfsburg and 1. FC Köln on Matchday 17 and 18 respectively. Although it is only goal difference keeping them above the waterline ahead of Saturday’s trip to Hamburg, it is a vital step in the right direction.
"The win does us good, but it is only three points. We need to immediately look ahead now and concentrate on the tasks ahead." said new Stuttgart recruit Kevin Großkreutz following a trademark heart-on-the-sleeve performance in Cologne. Stuttgart captain and goalscorer Christian Gentner went one further than the former Dortmund man, adding: "This win will boost our confidence ahead of next week’s difficult task."
Stability in Hamburg
As Gentner alluded to, Hamburg at home is scarcely an easy assignment. The 11th-placed Red Shorts are the current Bundesliga campaign’s sixth best performers away from home (W4, D2, L3) and are already five points better off than at the same juncture last term. Crucially, aside from bringing stability off the pitch, former Stuttgart coach Bruno Labbadia - himself rewarded with a contract extension during the recent winter break - has delivered positive performances on it.
"The team did well putting our game plan into action against Bayern," Labbadia explained following HSV’s narrow 2-1 defeat to league leaders FC Bayern München on Matchday 18. "We had a few good situations where we could have worked the ball a bit better, but this is Bayern München we’re talking about and I’m sure we’ll improve in the coming games. We have another plan for the Stuttgart clash and will be meticulously working on it this week."
Platform for success
Determining how best to stop Stuttgart midfield trio Daniel Didavi, Timo Werner and Filip Kostic is likely to be high on Labbadia’s tactical agenda. The buccaneering triumvirate ran the show against Köln last time out, with Didavi and Werner on the scoresheet and Kostic involved in two of the visitors’ three goals in what was conceivably Stuttgart’s most accomplished team display of the season.
As recent displays have shown, both sides have come a long way since last April’s nail-biter in Stuttgart on the penultimate matchday of the season - a game VfB edged 2-1. As long as they continue to show signs of improvement in front of the FOX Network cameras this weekend, fans on both sides of the Atlantic will go home very happy indeed.