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Unfinished business

Who could blame VfB Stuttgart fans for enthusiastically rehearsing their favourite English football chants after their team had drawn Chelsea in the second round of the Champions League?

Not only would their anti-English tunes of choice, ditties that are regularly recited at Bundesliga games each week, be getting to grips with the fact that they have the chance to shatter the dreams of the London club's desire to buy European football's greatest prize; they would also have the chance to avenge their Cup-winners' Cup Final loss to the Blues back in 1998.

On that May night in Stockholm six years ago, Stuttgart's dreams of their first-ever European trophy were dashed by a brilliant winner from Sardinian maestro Gianfranco Zola and now they aim to set the record straight.

'You might say we have some unfinished business with Chelsea,' laughs Stuttgart president Erwin Staudt. 'Maybe this time we will have the upper hand. In any case, we know it will be a difficult challenge. Chelsea are undoubtedly a team of the highest calibre and have spent some 150 million euros on new players. They are very strong. To make progress, we have to believe in ourselves. We will be doing all we can to make the next round and be worthy ambassadors of German football.'

The sole Stuttgart survivor of that 1998 Final, Croat defensive midfielder Zvonimir Soldo, however, plays down the significance of a rematch with Chelsea: 'Of course, it's always disappointing to lose a Final and our supporters have bad memories of Chelsea, ' states the VfB skipper. 'But revenge doesn't play a part in our motivation. Time moves on. Chelsea have a brand new team and so do we.

'The Champions League gives us the opportunity to put our season back on track. Results have not been going too well for us in the Bundesliga lately and we must put matters right as soon as possible. Against Chelsea we'll need to be aiming to reproduce the sort of form which helped us beat Manchester United in the last round.

'At times recently we've been too passive in our approach. But you can't expect too much from a young team which is still learning. It's great to be among the last-16 in the Champions League. But we can't see it as an end in itself. Now we're looking to go further.'

Revenge doesn't play a part in our motivation. Time moves on. Chelsea have a brand new team and so do we
Zvonimir Soldo
Soldo has good reason to be concerned with Stuttgart's current form. Defeated in three out of four League games since the winter break and with only one win in their last seven, Stuttgart have been a pale shadow of the team which took the Bundesliga by storm in the early in the campaign.

These are worrying times for VfB coach Felix Magath, the ex-Hamburg playmaker who struck home the winner in the 1983 Champions Cup Final against Juventus. His young team have lost their way and his Yuletide warning that the squad was not strong enough to compete for honours has been borne out.

'Defeats have eaten into our self belief,' explains Magath, who has been rumoured to be on his way to Bayern Munich next season, as Ottmar Hitzfeld's woes show little sign of letting up.

'We are not as tough mentally as we used to be. We're playing with fear. When the team starts to think that all it has to do is turn up and loses the will-to-win, there isn't much you can do. Psychologically, we are in search of a boost.

'Chelsea will be a tough nut to crack but we can do it. They have invested a lot of money on new players but it takes time to build a real team. They are pinning their hopes on big name individuals, while the togethness of our side may be to our advantage. I thought we were outstanding in the first phase of the Champions League and the aim must be to hit those heights again.'

Not that Stuttgart are without their own stars. They may not have a benefactor with the deep pockets of Russian oil tycoon Roman Abramovich but their youth system is second to none and in the last few years a host of brilliant prospects have emerged.

Gianfranco Zola celebrates the winner in the 1998 Cup Winners' Cup Final.
Gianfranco Zola celebrates the winner in the 1998 Cup Winners' Cup Final.

Striker Kevin Kuranyi has deservedly established himself in the German national team, Andreas Hinkel is an excellent raiding right-back, while keeper Timo Hildebrand looks every inch the ideal successor to Oliver Kahn.

Another brilliant prospect is attacking midfielder Aleksandr Hleb, the Belarus international who has been linked with a number of leading English Premiership sides. 'Chelsea are a high class team,' says Hleb.

'Any side with players of the calibre of Desailly, Mutu, Makelele and many other super players has to be respected. But we musn't be in awe of them. After all, we have already beaten Manchester United this season. That showed our what we are capable of and gives us something to build on.'

Whether the stuttering and out of form version of Stuttgart that goes into battle on Wednesday night can be compared to the vibrant model that beat Manchester United back in October remains to be seen.

Chelsea's persistently under-pressure boss Claudio Ranieri would be forgiven for hoping they are not.

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