The UEFA Champions League is back in business this week after the winter recess with 16 teams resuming their second group-stage programme with dreams of brandishing European club football's most coveted trophy in Manchester in late May.
But for FC Basel, the question is - are they physically and psychologically ready for a joust at the highest European level while still in their winter break? The Swiss champions have had no serious competitive action for two months, because the country's football is in winter hibernation until the beginning of March, and the start of the championship round.
Tonight, Basel entertain Spanish outfit RC Deportivo La Coruña in Group D, and their players will be wiping 'winter sleep' out of their eyes. And for all of the fitness work done recently, a team that has had some time off from domestic and international pressures might risk being caught cold as they seek to find their competitive rhythm. Coach Christian Gross will be urging his players to come wide awake for their first major test of the year.
Gross has recently taken his team to the Swiss mountain resort of St Moritz, as well as to Turkey, to shake off the cobwebs. At the weekend, Basel disappointed in a 3-0 friendly-match defeat against Swiss rivals FC Zürich - but the man who has put the city firmly on the football map says his team are itching to get at La Coruña. "There is no discussion about the Swiss winter break, and we live with it," says Gross. "
Physically, we won't have a problem. The big issue will be if we are mentally ready - and I think we are ready."
Basel have recent experience of playing against a Spanish team. They were thrashed 6-2 by Valencia CF in the first group stage, and drew an exciting return 2-2 in Switzerland. "I don't think that Deportivo will play in the same way as Valencia," Gross reflected. "Valencia try to dominate games from the start, but Deportivo have quick strikers, and I expect them to play more on the counter."
Hakan Yakin's qualities
Tactically, Gross feels that his attacking dynamo Hakan Yakin will have a key influence on Basel's performance. Yakin, playing in a free role behind two strikers, has been a target for several leading clubs during the winter. Gross wants him to use the attention to his advantage - and that of his team. "There has been a lot said about Hakan Yakin during the winter," said the Basel coach. "And I want to see him show his qualities, while also taking the team's needs into account."
Deportivo trained at Basel's Saint Jakob Park in raw conditions on Tuesday evening. Gross hopes that the continuing "cold snap" will catch out the Spanish guests tonight, rather than see his own charges rudely awoken from their own winter slumbers by an unpleasant cold shower.
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