German champions VfB Stuttgart have not enjoyed the most auspicious of starts to the defence of their title but as they prepare for their first appearance in the UEFA Champions League since 2003/04, optimism within the camp is still high.
Last season's Bundesliga was one of the most exciting in recent years with just four points separating the top three teams as Stuttgart edged out FC Schalke 04 on the final day of the season to clinch their first German title since 1992. It was a remarkable season for Armin Veh's side, who embarked on a nine-game winning streak to pip Schalke and narrowly missed out on the domestic double when they lost 3-2 against 1. FC Nürnberg after extra time in the German Cup final.
This season the pressure is on to prove that their exploits of 2006/07 were no flash in the pan but just one point from their opening two games was certainly not the start they wanted. Victory against MSV Duisburg last week helped raise morale but midfield star Thomas Hitzlsperger is under no illusions about the task ahead. "It's a different situation now," the 25-year-old told uefa.com. "Everywhere we go the teams are more motivated and trying to beat us because we're champions. But we know we are a good side and I'm confident we can still do well.
"We've only played a couple of games and it's a long season with a long way to go. We're looking forward to the next few games because I think we've done well so far, even though we haven't got the results. We were unlucky against Hertha [BSC Berlin], we played well first half and just put our heads down a little in the second, but I'm quite optimistic we'll do well this season again." Hitzlsperger began his third campaign at Stuttgart with a goal in the 3-1 defeat against Hertha on 18 August. It was in England, though, that he made his name appearing 99 times for Aston Villa FC before moving back to his homeland in 2005.
Hitzlsperger is now looking forward to making his mark on the UEFA Champions League, where they have been drawn in a fascinating group with FC Barcelona, Olympique Lyonnais and first opponents Rangers FC. "It's fantastic," enthused the man dubbed Der Hammer because of his trademark left-foot shot. "To play in the Champions League is going to be really good, but we've got to focus on the Bundesliga first. It's like a bonus being in it and we're obviously looking forward to it. There are some big games and it's what every player aims for, to play at the highest level."
Stuttgart will be dining at Europe's top table for the first time in four seasons and hoping to improve on their showing last time when after defeating Manchester United FC in the group stage they were narrowly beaten 1-0 over two legs in the first knockout round by Chelsea FC. The club have boosted their ranks with the signings of playmaker Yildiray Bastürk, forward Ewerthon, goalkeeper Raphael Schäfer and Romanian striker Ciprian Marica, and Marica, a €7m arrival from FC Shakhtar Donetsk understands the lure of Europe's premier club competition. "Stuttgart are an important club who will play in the Champions League," said the 21-year-old, part of the Shakhtar team that fell at the group stage last season. "To play in it is something unique. No money on earth can replace the feeling of playing there and the opportunities which taking part in such a competition offer to a player."
Marica scored twice in the group stage for Shakhtar and after making 73 league appearances over four years in Ukraine decided to test himself at a higher level. "I deeply wanted a new challenge because I think I have the potential to play better," he said. "I have found a very friendly environment. I have been a little bit surprised, but immediately realised I shouldn't have been. After the first training session my new team-mates offered to help me with various issues to adapt in Stuttgart. I feel like one of them and this is so important."
Marica, capped 15 times by his country with five goals to his name, was part of the Romania team that beat Turkey 2-0 last week, on a night that Germany took a squad containing four Stuttgart players to Wembley for the 2-1 defeat of England. As well as Hitzlsperger, Joachim Löw's ranks also contained promising youngsters Serdar Tasci, Sami Khedira and Roberto Hilbert, giving real hope for the future. "They've done well," says Hitzlsperger. "They've all come and done really well to make it into the squad, so overall it's looking quite bright."
Additional reporting Paul-Daniel Zaharia
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