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VfB versus FCB

Ribéry and Robben out of Stuttgart trip

The second half of the normally crisply symmetrical Bundesliga season has just begun, but Bayern must still attend to one piece of unfinished business from the pre-Christmas period. The last scheduled league fixture before the mid-season break was rearranged to accommodate the FIFA Club World Cup in mid-December, and now takes place on Wednesday evening when Germany’s biggest club travel to VfB Stuttgart (Live in English from 8 pm CET on Twitter and Web Radio). Following a convincing 2–0 victory away to Mönchengladbach last Friday, the league leaders are determined to harvest another three points in the 93rd meeting between the south German rivals.

“It’s a huge chance to maintain our momentum and extend our lead. That’s our target,” said club captain Philipp Lahm. The odds are stacked heavily in favour of the treble winners, who have beaten the Swabians in the last nine meetings between the clubs and last lost away to Stuttgart in 2007. “We’ve always taken something from games there recently but it’s never been easy,” recalled Lahm. “It’s up to us. If we play to our potential we’ll come home with the three points.“

Guardiola expects aggressive VfB

However, history guarantees nothing, as Pep Guardiola is well aware. “Stuttgart are in the same position we were in before the game in Mönchengladbach,” the Spaniard noted, recalling Bayern’s friendly defeat away to Red Bull Salzburg. VfB lost their restart fixture 2–1 at home to Mainz and will be determined to make amends against their southern rivals. “They’ll be very aggressive and very focused,” commented Guardiola, “they’re always dangerous in the first 15 minutes.”

Bayern can widen the gap between themselves and second-placed Bayer Leverkusen to 13 points if they beat VfB, but Guardiola waved away suggestions the title race was over. “No team in the world has sealed the title in January,” the Spaniard warned, “there are still plenty of games and lots of points at stake.” Nevertheless, he acknowledged, “we’re obviously in a good position. I trust my team and I’m hoping for three more points.“

However, Guardiola is again unable to field a full-strength side. Franck Ribéry is still sidelined with the muscular problems that kept him out of the Gladbach clash, and although Arjen Robben made a brief comeback from injury at Borussia Park, he too has tweaked a muscle. On the plus side, Mario Mandzukic returns to squad duty. The other men definitely out of action are Holger Badstuber (sports rehab after cruciate surgery) and Bastian Schweinsteiger, Daniel van Buyten and Javi Martínez, although the trio are expected to resume training soon.

Compared to the upbeat mood at Bayern, VfB’s defeat to Mainz has prompted a bout of soul-searching in Stuttgart. The Swabians were determined to hit the ground running in the second half of the season, but with only 19 points from 17 games the 2007 champions are languishing in the lower reaches of the table. And due to a quirk in the fixture list, they travel to face Leverkusen just three days after entertaining FCB.

VfB aim to go to the limit

But are VfB scared of making a damaging false start after Christmas, reporters asked striker Vedad Ibisevic. “Half the world gets scared when you mention Bayern,” the goal-getter shot back. “I think we lacked the utter determination to win the match,” lamented general manager Fredi Bobic in the wake of the unlooked-for defeat at home to Mainz.

Stuttgart intend to show a different face when the Bavarians come to town. “We have to make sure we’re up for it against Bayern,” urged Munich-born Moritz Leitner. Coach Thomas Schneider feels his team are rank outsiders: “I can’t see any weaknesses,” said Lahm’s former VfB team-mate, “we’ll have to go right to the limit. We’ll need an outstanding day and a little bit of luck.“