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Stuttgart the team to beat

Published: Thursday 7 October 2004, 14.40CET
Group G focus: VfB Stuttgart's flying start makes them one to watch, but SL Benfica are on song too.
 
 
Published: Thursday 7 October 2004, 14.40CET

Stuttgart the team to beat

Group G focus: VfB Stuttgart's flying start makes them one to watch, but SL Benfica are on song too.

uefa.com assesses the form of the sides in UEFA Cup Group G ahead of the opening matches on 21 October.

* VfB STUTTGART

Buoyed by their promising UEFA Champions League debut last term, VfB Stuttgart have continued to impress this season both in the Bundesliga and on the European stage.

Since a defeat by Werder Bremen in the summer's German League Cup semi-finals, Stuttgart have not lost a game. They lie second in the Bundesliga, a point behind surprise pacesetters VfL Wolfsburg, and cruised past Újpesti TE 7-1 on aggregate in the UEFA Cup first round.

This despite the departures of coach Felix Magath to FC Bayern München and key defender Marcelo Bordon to FC Schalke 04. Magath's successor Matthias Sammer has reinforced the team with several canny captures including defenders Markus Babbel from Liverpool FC, Mathieu Delpierre from LOSC Lille Métropole and Martin Stranzl from TSV 1860 München.

With the highly-rated Timo Hildebrand in goal, Philipp Lahm, Babbel, Stranzl and Andreas Hinkel forming a fine back four, Hakan Yakin, Silvio Meissner, Aliaksandr Hleb, Horst Heldt, Zvonimir Soldo and Jurica Vranješ providing a wealth of midfield options and Kevin Kuranyi partnered by either Imre Szabics or Cacau up front, Sammer has a lineup capable of achieving great heights.

* SL BENFICA

When SL Benfica began the season by conceding the Portuguese Super Cup to FC Porto and missing out on the UEFA Champions League group stage at the hands of RSC Anderlecht - a 1-0 first-leg advantage turning into a 3-1 aggregate defeat in Brussels - it seemed that Giovanni Trapattoni was in for a hard first campaign at the Lisbon club.

But Benfica's fortunes have since transformed. Four wins and a single draw in their first five SuperLiga fixtures have taken them four points clear of title-holders Porto at the top of the table, and FK Dukla Banská Bystrica were seen off with the minimum of fuss in the UEFA Cup first round, 5-0 the aggregate victory. Even when it seemed their league form could be slipping at Vitória SC on 3 October, Geovanni struck a 30-metre free-kick in the final minute to seal a 2-1 win.

With Porto having undergone summer upheaval, and Sporting Clube de Portugal yet to find their feet this season, the 2004/05 campaign is looking good for Benfica as they seek to end their long wait for a 28th league title, which now stretches to eleven seasons.

* NK DINAMO ZAGREB

Despite progress past NK Primorje and IF Elfsborg to reach the UEFA Cup group stage, it has hardly been a flying start to the season for Dinamo.

Their domestic campaign did not begin well, and it has needed two wins in their last four games to lift them to sixth place ten fixtures into the Croatian First League season. The decline in form of young captain Niko Kranjcar has been the main concern, and he has found himself dropped, with the armband passing to fellow midfield player Jasmin Agic.

The mixed results led to an early change of coach, with Nikola Jurcevic resigning in August, and a caretaker spell for Djuro Bago ending two weeks later when Nenad Gracan came in from NK Kamen Ingrad. The new man has made several signings, including NK Zagreb defender Vedran Ješe and two Croatian internationals from NK Varteks - in-form forward Veldin Karic and goalkeeper Vladimir Vasilj - inspiring the upturn in form. However, experienced midfield player Edin Mujcin has injured his thigh and may miss the start of the group stage.

* SC HEERENVEEN

SC Heerenveen had an unusual route into the UEFA Cup group stage, their tie with Maccabi Petach-Tikva FC becoming a one-off home fixture, as the first-leg trip to Israel was cancelled due to a strike.

Heerenveen made the most of their chance, winning 5-0, but in the Eredivisie they are some way from matching last season's fourth place, currently lying tenth with ten points from seven fixtures. But then it was always going to be a transitional period after the end of Foppe de Haan's 12-year spell in charge.

Gert-Jan Verbeek has come in as coach, but forwards Gerald Sibon and Richard Knopper, as well as goalkeeper Hans Vonk, have departed for elsewhere. Better news came on 31 August with the arrival of striker Arnold Bruggink from RCD Mallorca, and it was he who opened the scoring against Petach-Tikva.

* KSK BEVEREN

With only two squad members born before 1980, and with every outfield starter in their decisive UEFA Cup first-round victory against PFC Levski Sofia coming from the Ivory Coast, Beveren are one of the most distinctive teams in the group stage.

Having come to Europe's attention by reaching last season's Belgian Cup final, losing to UEFA Champions League entrants Club Brugge KV, Beveren saw off Liechtenstein's FC Vaduz 5-2 on aggregate before overcoming Levski. They drew 1-1 in Bulgaria prior to a 1-0 win in the home leg. Finishing 12th in the Belgian first division last season, they were one place lower at the time of writing, although on 3 October they won for the first time at home in the league, 2-1 against K. Lierse SK

The club's Ivorian influence has been well-documented: technical manager Jean-Marc Guillou's policy is to bring in four or five players from his football academy in the African nation each season. Goalkeeper Mark Volders was the sole home-produced player to start the victory against Levski.

 
Last updated: 11/10/04 13.18CET

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