Resurgent Stuttgart can pose Barcelona more problems than expected in the Champions League

Stuttgart v Barcelona, Champions League, February 23, 2010

Stuttgart 5/1; Draw 16/5; Barcelona 4/6

After Lyon pulled off a surprise and beat Real Madrid last week in the Champions League, can Stuttgart draw inspiration from their French neighbours and upset the odds against Barcelona?

Stuttgart currently lie ninth in the Bundesliga, a position that hardly fills onlookers with much hope that the Germans can shock the 2009 all-conquering Catalans. But Stuttgart circa 2010 look like a completely different side to Stuttgart ’09, and recent form has bolstered belief that Barca could be in store for a tougher match than previously expected.

Die Schwaben started the current league season under the management of former Liverpool defender Markus Babbel, but while the objective of blooding a newbee coach was honourable, Stuttgart suffered a horrendous first half of the season. In their opening 15 games of the Bundesliga they managed only two victories, while they just squeaked through their rather tame Champions League group which featured Rangers, Unirea Urziceni and Sevilla.

The turn of the year brought change at Stuttgart, and Babbel was jettisoned out of the club while former Spurs boss Christian Gross was shepherded in to the Mercedes-Benz Arena. And Gross’s impact has been dramatic, with Stuttgart having won six and drawn one of his opening eight games in charge of Die Roten, while his side have found the net 20 times – in comparison to the measly 12 goals they scored in the first half of the campaign.

On the back of last weekend’s 5-1 thrashing of Cologne, all eyes will naturally focus on four-goal hero Cacau (3/1 to score). The truth is though, that while the 28-year-old Grozilian forward may have stole all the headlines in the past few days, the truth is that he’d fallen behind fellow strikers Pavel Pogrebnyak (3/1 to score) and Ciprian Marica in the pecking order prior to last Satuday’s performance. The result is that, all of a sudden, Stuttgart look to have a wealth of options in the final third.

Other good news for Stuttgart concerns the return of midfielder Sami Khedira (17/2 to score), who has recovered from a thigh injury to be in contention on Tuesday night. Elsewhere in midfield, Barca-loanee Aliaksandr Hleb (12/1 to score) will be looking to remind his parent club why they signed him from Arsenal in the first place, although the Belarusian winger has played down his current side’s chances claiming they only have a 10% chance of winning the tie.

Further back, Ivorian left-back Boka has picked up a shoulder injury which rules him out of selection, while better news surrounds the form of 40-year-old erratic keeper Jens Lehmann who appears to have stopped his antics which got him into so much bother at the start of the year, while earning rave review for his recent performances between the sticks. (Stuttgart are 6/1 to keep a clean sheet.)

Contrasting the optimism surrounding Stuttgart is the sense that Barcelona are facing a facing a tie with only really negative outcomes possible. Should Barca cruise past Stuttgart, as is expected, the Spaniards will only likely receive a limited amount of praise for doing the job everyone demands of them. Lose however, and all hell will break loose.

After losing their first domestic match of the season a fortnight ago at Atletico Madrid, Barca returned to the winning trial at the weekend dispatching four goals past an accommodating Racing Santander. That win cemented Barca’s position at the top of La Liga, and the reigning champions also received good news on the injury front welcoming back Xavi (6/1 to score), Daniel Alves, Yaya Toure and Dimitro Chygrynskiy to fitness.

While Chygrynskiy is unavailable for selection due to ineligibility, Xavi, Alves and Toure could all be in line for a recall as coach Pep Guardiola is able to rotate his squad. On the downside though, question marks remain over Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s inclusion after the Swede was substituted against Racing with an ankle problem. Should Zlatan (7/2 to score) miss out in Stuttgart, Barcelona will not be too distressed, having Pedro, Bojan, Theirry Henry (5/2 to score) and Leo Messi (6/5 to score) all willing and able to start in the visitors’ attack.

Overall, those expecting a Barcelona whitewash may be surprised by Stuttgart’s competitiveness. That said, while the Germans have been in fine form of late they’re yet to meet a side with the quality that the Catalans possess.

101gg predicts: Stuttgart 1 – Barcelona 2 (8/1)

Stuttgart 5/1; Draw 16/5; Barcelona 4/6

Full match odds here.