Thursday 26 April 2018

Stuttgart firefighter Gross deflects heat on Barca

Robin Scott-Elliot

CHRISTIAN GROSS might just have found his dream ticket.

Thirteen years after launching his ill-fated spell at Tottenham by brandishing a tube pass and talking of the great things he aimed to achieve at White Hart Lane, the Swiss will send his revitalised Stuttgart side out to take on Barcelona, the continent's best, in the last 16 of the Champions League. Spurs, meanwhile, are preparing for an FA Cup replay against Bolton.

In the wake of his 10-month stay in London, Gross retreated home to rebuild his battered reputation with a rewarding decade in charge of Basle. Then when Stuttgart needed a firefighter to rescue their season last December, they beckoned him frantically over the border.

Under Markus Babbel, Stuttgart had struggled in the Bundesliga and when they slipped into the bottom three in December the former Liverpool defender was dismissed -- despite having steered the club to third, and into the Champions League, in his debut season.

Six wins in eight games since the arrival of Gross have relieved the pressure and a 5-1 victory at Cologne sends them into the first leg against the holders on a high. "We have got nothing to lose," claimed Gross, who will include Cacau up front following his two goals at the weekend.

Barca recovered from their first league loss this term by cantering past Racing Santander 4-0 on Saturday and there is one player in the home ranks all too well aware of the task that awaits in the Mercedes Benz Arena.

"Honestly, it's the only team I didn't want to play against. It's the best team in the world," said Alexander Hleb, who is on loan from the Spanish champions. "I know it, I was there. It may be good for the fans but bad for our goal to advance to the next round."

The match promises to stage something of an Arsenal reunion with Hleb's former Emirates team-mate Jens Lehmann in goal for Stuttgart and Thierry Henry, after scoring his first goal since early December at the weekend, set to lead the attack.

Henry has struggled through a troubled campaign since his handball in the World Cup play-off against Ireland in November.

He has managed only three goals in 18 games, a loss of direction that led to him being dropped for the last three games. But with Zlatan Ibrahimovic struggling with an ankle injury, Pep Guardiola is ready to recall the Frenchman.

"I hope his goal will give him a lift," said Guardiola, the Barca coach. "The team needs much more of him and I expect more from him." (© Independent News Service)

Stuttgart v Barcelona

Live, Sky Sports 2, 7.45

Irish Independent

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