What a strange autumn season it has been for Stuttgart. They began the year with hopes of mounting a title challenge: coach Markus Babbel had qualified the team for the Champions League in his first season in charge, and while Daniel Ljuboja and Mario Gomez had left, Zdravko Kuzmanovic and Pavel Pogrebnyak had been brought in.
And while they achieved their stated aim of reaching the Champions League knock-out round, where they are (7.6) to get past holders Barcelona, they spent most of the campaign lodged in the Bundesliga’s bottom three. Babbel tried everything to turn things round, even taking the captain’s armband away from Thomas Hitzlsperger, but despite receiving a promise from the board that he be given until the winter break to turn things around, he was dismissed after the 1-1 home draw with fellow strugglers Bochum earlier this month.
Christian Gross, the former Spurs coach who won four league titles and four Swiss Cups in a ten-year spell at FC Basle since his north London failure, was brought in to replace Babbel, and has immediately set about restoring confidence to the squad and compactness to the playing style. “We needed to change a few things but this group of players is extremely talented and I am confident we can move up the table,” he said.
Gross’s arrival certainly seems to have had an impact on the players: within eleven minutes of his first game, the must-win European clash against Unirea, Stuttgart were 3-0 ahead and Pogrebnyak, a player shorn of confidence under the old regime, looked reborn.
On Saturday, they notched their first Bundesliga win since September, a run of ten matches, after beating Hoffenheim 3-1, a game they were (2.26) to win. Gross’s record going into the winter break now stands at two wins and one draw, which was against Mainz last week. Stuttgart were 1-0 up going into injury-time when goalkeeper Jens Lehmann needlessly stamped on Aristide Bance, conceding a penalty and getting himself sent off.
After the game, Lehmann found himself in a fans’ area as he left the stadium and one supporter asked him, “Why cant you just be normal?” he stole his glasses and walked off with them for about ten metres. He eventually gave them back and asked someone to call him a taxi.
This has not been the first eccentric incident involving Lehmann this month.
He was fined Ã¢â€šÂ¬40,000 for criticizing the decision to ditch Babbel, which he claimed had only come after general manager Horst Heldt had met with a fans’
group. “There was a certain bunch of fans, most of whom are just going through puberty, and that’s what influenced the club in making certain decisions,” he said. He then refused to pay the fine, but eventually did so.
One week later, TV cameras spotting him urinating behind the advertising hoardings in the game against Unirea, while even he admitted he was embarrassed by the spectacle-stealing from the fan. “I did not know how I could shut him up otherwise, but it is embarrassing,” he conceded.
Gross is a disciplinarian coach and he has warned Lehmann about his future behaviour. “Jens knows the situation in which we find ourselves. I need players who roll their sleeves up,” he said. According to team-mate Ludovic Magnin, that quality is beyond the goalkeeper, who upsets his team-mates with special privileges, which include an extra day off per week, and the option to travel home alone from away matches.
“What may not be an issue when you are successful becomes more disturbing than an elephant when things aren’t going well,” said Magnin after Lehmann exercised his right to miss training.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that with Sven Ulreich, Lehmann’s 21-year-old understudy, playing, Stuttgart’s defence looked solid against Hoffenheim.
Lehmann is currently serving a three-match ban and it remains to be seen if he will win back his place in the side. Lehmann is 40 and will retire at the end of this season, but Ulreich now has the chance to put him out to grass a little sooner.
Reproduced with permission from betting.betfair.com. Ã‚Â© The Sporting Exchange Limited
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