Christian Gross assumed the Stuttgart reins in December 2009, after an autumn rut during which the club slid to 16th in the Bundesliga standings. With Die Roten having won the league in 2007 and finished third term, the prospect of a relegation battle had clearly not been on the agenda.
Stuttgart were also struggling in the UEFA Champions League. A single win from five games up to that point left them third in Group G behind leaders Sevilla and Unirea Urziceni. A place in the knockout phase looked a remote possibility.
Director of sport Horst Heldt looked across Germany’s southern borders for help, and the decision to install the Swiss coach soon paid off. In his very first game in charge, Gross oversaw a crucial 3-1 success over the Romanian champions, securing an unlikely pass to the Round of 16 of the Champions League.
Team mentality instilled
Gross, whose coaching career began in 1988 with FC Wil and includes spells with Grasshoppers (1993-97), Tottenham Hotspur (1997-98) and Basel (1999-2009), quickly succeeded in restoring self-belief and a team mentality into a group of luckless and demoralised individuals.
Stuttgart’s Bundesliga results reflect the transformation. Prior to his arrival, VfB had taken a meagre 12 points from 15 matches and were flirting dangerously with the drop zone. The 55-year-old's tenure has yielded 23 points from 11 matches to date, and guided the team into a comfortable ninth in the table. In early December, the men from Swabia were fully 13 points adrift of qualifying for European competition, but the gap to fifth-placed Hamburg is now down to eight points.
Gross’s most successful spell as a coach was his previous engagement, where he guided Basel to four Swiss championship and cup triumphs. He now seems to have restored the vital bond between the boss and his players which Markus Babbel, for all his success the previous season, clearly lost.
That has to be the main reason why the likes of Germany internationals Cacau and Sami Khedira, and Russia hitman Pavel Pogrebnyak, have picked up form in such an explosive manner. Defensive midfielder Khedira was the very image of a meandering lost soul on the pitch in the first third of the campaign, but the 22-year-old has stormed back and looks even stronger than before.
The same applies to Pogrebnyak. In his first 12 Bundesliga outings for his new club, the seasoned international managed just two goals and one assist, and only covered the full 90 minutes on six occasions. Since the arrival of the nine-time Swiss coach of the year, the former Zenit striker has more than repaid the faith shown in him, contributing four goals and three assists in the last 11 matches.
The most dramatic example of the Gross effect is Cacau. The Brazil-born Germany international was a shadow of his former self under Babbel, with a paltry return of one goal in 12 Bundesliga appearances.
The 29-year-old has responded to the change in the hot seat with a veritable glut of goals. Cacau has struck seven times in six top-flight games, and fired the opening goal in Stuttgart’s Round of 16, first leg with Barcelona in the Champions League.
Gross has not shied away from unpopular but necessary decisions, rigorously sorting the wheat from the chaff among his playing staff during the mid-season break. The most notable departure was that of Germany midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger, who has headed for Serie A side Lazio after learning he had little prospect of a regular berth under the new regime. Former Turkey international Yildiray Basturk left for Blackburn Rovers in England, and Switzerland international Ludovic Magnin has gone home to FC Zurich.
The streamlined Stuttgart squad has been in sparkling form since the midpoint of the season. Last Friday’s narrow 2-1 defeat to title contenders Schalke was their first away defeat under Gross, and even then, it was a reverse which definitely belongs in the ‘avoidable’ category.
Wednesday sees the biggest game of the lot for VfB, when they travel to Barcelona for the Champions League last sixteen, return leg, with the tie nicely poised at 1-1 from the first 90 minutes.
"All things considered, it’s a very good result. Not many teams in this world hold Barcelona to a draw. We’ll have to see whether it’s enough for us to go through," Gross declared after the first meeting between the sides.
Khedira was even more bullish: "If we play as well as we did in the first half here, we can survive in Barcelona. Everything’s possible in football. We’re not just going to Barcelona as their sparring partners."
For their part, the FIFA Club World Cup holders were left with plenty of respect for Gross’s team after being given the run-around at times in Swabia. "Stuttgart were very good indeed," said Lionel Messi. "Fortunately we managed a vital away goal in the second half. We’ll have to make the most of home advantage now if we’re to get through to the quarter-finals."
Sweden goal-getter Zlatan Ibrahimovic voiced equal respect for the Germans: "Stuttgart are a very good team, they were extremely aggressive in the first match and gave it their best shot at home. But it’ll be a different game in the return at Camp Nou."
Barcelona certainly warmed up in style for that match, as Pep Guardiola’s men impressively underlined their title credentials in La Liga with a comfortable victory over third-placed Valencia. Argentina superstar Messi scored all the goals in a 3-0 win.
Only time will tell whether Gross and his men can pull off one of the shock results of the season in Catalonia. Stuttgart might want to look to Rubin Kazan and Sevilla for inspiration, the two clubs who have visited Barcelona and come away as winners this season. The Russian champions won their Champions League group stage fixture 2-1, while Stuttgart’s group opponents triumphed by the same score in the last 16 of the Copa del Rey.