Dan Moore

The sale of Mario Gómez in July to Bayern Munich might have been a sign that a long, hard season was in store for VfB Stuttgart fans. After an opening day defeat against champions Wolfsburg, the Reds bounced back with a 4-2 home victory against newly-promoted SC Freiburg, but since then they have tasted victory just once – away to Eintracht Frankfurt, at the end of September.

Yet despite Gómez’s departure to the Bavarian giants, it wasn’t all doom and gloom around the Mercedes-Benz Arena this summer, with a host of signings brought to the club. The pick of the bunch was undoubtedly the loan signing of Alexander Hleb from Barcelona, bringing the Belarusian returning to the club he represented for five years before a move to Arsenal. Hleb, after signing his contract said “the team has great potential and I am convinced that we can achieve a lot together.”

With the money received for Gómez, thought to be in the region of €30M, Stuttgart were able to add three more star names to their squad in Khalid Boulahrouz from Chelsea for around £4M, Zenit St Petersburg striker Pavel Pogrebnyak, whose transfer fee and contract length were asked not to be revealed by the Russian club, and tenacious Serbian midfielder Zdravko Kuzmanovic from Fiorentina, also for an undisclosed fee.

Going into the season, Stuttgart fans had every fight to feel optimistic about their team’s chances of making and maintaining a real challenge to regain the Bundesliga title they won three years ago. Now, though, that 2-1 home victory over Energie Cottbus that sealed their fifth Bundesliga success back on the 19th of May 2007 looks an awful long time ago.

It’s all too easy to point the finger at the team’s lack of goals as reason for lingering in the bottom half of the table, yet their decision to allow star striker Gómez to join rivals Bayern Munich is without doubt the main reason for hitting the back of the net just 10 times in 12 league games. In defence Markus Babbel’s side appear moderately stable; having conceded fewer goals than third placed SV Hamburg and Champions League new-boys Wolfsburg.

Germany under-21 international Julian Schieber is the club’s leading goalscorer so far this season at the time of writing, with three goals in 11 Bundesliga games, while Russian striker Pogrebnyak, despite being ever present in their starting eleven, appears yet to have fully settled into the team, having scored just twice in 12 appearances. Alexander Hleb, who maintains that Stuttgart can still win the Bundesliga this season, has so far failed to score. “Things are not looking good at the moment” he says, “but I’m confident we’ll fight back.”

There need not be a thorough investigation into the reasons why Stuttgart are hovering precariously above the relegation places of the Bundesliga, as one look at how many goals they have scored in their last five league games says all that is needed. Put simply, replacing Mario Gómez with Pavel Pogrebnyak is not replacing like-for-like. Having a creative force like Alexander Hleb is all well and good, but it is all for nothing in defences cannot be breached. Stuttgart’s situation is indeed precarious and Babbel’s men have managed just one goal in their last five games – a strike from Brazilian striker Cacau in their 2-1 home defeat to Schalke.
But it isn’t just the situation up front which needs to be addressed. At the end of this season Stuttgart will likely need to replace shot-stopper Jens Lehmann, who recently celebrated his 40th birthday, as the goalkeeper announced his retirement at the end of the 2009/10 season back in August. Doubts remain over whether either his two understudies, Sven Ulrich and Alexander Stolz, really have what it takes to become long-term first choice goalkeepers at the Mercedes-Benz Arena. The controversial German did, however, leave the door open to a possible U-turn on his retirement plans when he told newspaper Bild “I am 95 per cent sure that I am going to retire at the end of this season. Still, I do not know that exactly.”

After die Schwaben’s last league game, a goalless draw away to Borussia Mönchengladbach, captain Thomas Hitzlsperger insisted that a victory is not far off, and that they were unlucky not to have taken three points from the game. “We are slowly getting closer to a victory. We had a great chance to win today, and were unlucky with several shots against the woodwork.”

Next up is a home game against bottom club Hertha Berlin, a game that represents a fantastic chance for Stuttgart to kick-start their campaign and move away from the drop zone, against a team that has failed to take maximum points from a game since the opening day of the season. It seems almost inconceivable that the two teams involved could very realistically find themselves in a relegation dogfight come the season’s climax, and if it’s possible to deem matches before the German winter break as ‘six pointers’, then this game certainly is one.

After that comes the real test of an away game against Bayer Leverkusen, a team currently topping the table and unbeaten in the Bundesliga so far. 

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