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In the light of David Beckham's return to Manchester United FC and José Mourinho's reunion with Chelsea FC, perhaps it was fitting that VfB Stuttgart midfielder Aleksandr Hleb should be reacquainted with FC Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League first knockout round.
However, while Beckham and Mourinho have relished meeting their former clubs again, Hleb is more reticent about resuming contact with his employers following his summer loan move from Camp Nou. "This was the one opponent I didn't want, because I know Barcelona are so strong," he said. "Against any other team we could put up a fight and would have the same chances, but not against Barcelona. But there's still a small chance for us."
For a large stretch of the teams' first-leg encounter on 23 February, that window of opportunity grew. Cacau's 25th-minute strike put the German side in front, and their spirited display arguably merited more than the 1-1 draw they had to settle for. If the away goal gives Barcelona the edge, the tie remains more evenly balanced than many anticipated. "We just need to concentrate on our game; we need to be compact and aggressive," the 28-year-old said. "We will get chances, I know that, but we've got to be really tight at the back."
Hleb endured a frustrating season in Catalonia last term after joining from Arsenal FC. The Belarusian international made just eight Liga starts, eventually finding himself surplus to requirements. Even so, having picked up a Spanish championship medal and played his part in Barcelona's journey to last year's UEFA Champions League final, he knows what he is saying when he calls Barcelona "simply the best team in the world".
"They play the nicest football and every player can decide a game on his own. We don't just have to concentrate on Leo [Messi] – because of course he is the most dangerous player – but on every other player, be it Xavi, Iniesta, Thierry [Henry], Pedro [Rodríguez] or Ibrahimović. Even in defence they set a real standard."
Hleb had his own high standards to live up to when he rejoined Stuttgart last summer. He had arrived at the Swabian club as a 19-year-old in September 2000, soon making a splash in the Bundesliga with his speed, mazy runs and ball skills. He earned the nickname 'Zauberlehrling' – sorcerer's apprentice – and laughs about those early days.
"I was the best player in the world just having a laugh! No, when you're young you don't think about things too much, you just go for it. You dribble through three or four in a match and it always works. We had a lot of fun when I played here. We had a very good team and things really went well for me. That's why I was awarded the nickname."
Given the Stuttgart fans' happy memories of Hleb, fulfilling their expectations was always going to be difficult, especially considering the team's poor start to the season. With the December appointment of coach Christian Gross, however, Hleb has renewed cause for optimism. "Things are going well for him. Everything fits together well – manager, club and team."
That assertion was substantiated by Stuttgart's performance in holding the Blaugrana two weeks ago. Yet whether Hleb, under contract for another two years at Camp Nou, will stay in Germany beyond May remains a question mark. "I don't even know myself," he said. For now, his ambition his simple: "We want to beat Barcelona, or, to put it better, we want to get through to the next round. Anything is possible in football and we have a chance. We will give it everything."
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