By Svend Frandsen
VfB Stuttgart face Celtic FC at Parkhead in the first leg of their UEFA Cup fourth-round tie on Thursday expecting, in the words of their coach Felix Magath, nothing less than a "fight to the death".
'Always difficult' opponents
Magath was expressing his admiration of Scottish sides' fighting spirit when he said: "
The Scots are always difficult to play against. Even if things don't seem to be going their way they fight to the death and, of course, Celtic boast a host of fantastic performers."
Still, Stuttgart will hope to take a positive omen from their last meeting with Scottish opposition, namely Heart of Midlothian FC, the season before last in the same competition. Then Stuttgart scrambed through on away goals in the first round - following a 1-0 home win with a 3-2 loss in Edinburgh - yet this narrow success precipitated a run to the fourth round of the competition which included victory over Feyenoord, before defeat against Spanish side RC Celta de Vigo.
If the Hearts tie was tight, Stuttgart have struggled even more against British opposition in the past. They lost to then English champions Leeds United AFC in the first round of the UEFA Champions League in 1992 in a far from straightforward tie. Stuttgart won the first leg 3-0 and were set to progress thanks to an away goal from Andreas Buck despite losing the return leg 4-1.
However, UEFA declared that the German club had fielded too many foreigners and ordered a one-off decider at the Camp Nou in Barcelona, which Howard Wilkinson's men won 2-1 in a virtually empty stadium. The blow was a heavy financial one for the German side who missed out on the chance to cash in on UEFA's flagship competition.
Stuttgart were back in the European fray in 1998, producing a fine run in the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup. Yet again, they were foiled by an English side, Gianfranco Zola's goal for Chelsea FC in the final denying them a first European trophy. This year, however, there are indications that Stuttgart could be on the verge of something special, having defeated FK Ventspils, Ferencvárosi TC, and Club Brugge KV on their way to the fourth round.
Their domestic form is good and, lying just three points short of BV Borussia Dortmund in third spot in the Bundesliga, Stuttgart are already eyeing a Champions League place next season. The inspirational 36-year old Krassimir Balakov, who retires at the end of the season to take up a coaching role, has provided the ammunition for the lively front pair of Kevin Kuranyi and Ioannis Amanatidis.
Kuranyi especially has caught the eye, coming of age this campaign in his sixth year at the Gotlieb-Daimler-Stadion. It might have taken a while but he is still only 21 and with joint Brazilian- German nationality, he could well be called up to Rudi Völler's national squad before long.
Just the tonic
Even though Stuttgart lost 2-0 to FC Schalke 04 at the weekend, they have won four of their past five matches. "My players were already focusing on Celtic on Saturday," Magath explained. "Perhaps this is the tonic we needed to put behind us our bad memories against English teams."
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