Troubled giants eye European cure
Many are the top teams around Europe who enjoyed a great deal of domestic success last year only to somehow come off the rails this season. While some are merely struggling to recreate former glories, others are even finding themselves dragged into relegation battles.
At times like these, European football can be a welcome distraction. The UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League will give these teams a chance to get back to winning ways and pick up some much-needed confidence. FIFA.com takes a look at some of the big names looking for a pick-me-up this week.
Domestic strugglers seek big-stage lift
Alongside Milan giants Inter and AC, Fiorentina are one of three Italian teams to have made it through to the last 16 of the Champions League. Tomorrow they travel to the German capital to take on Bayern Munich in the hope of putting their current domestic struggles behind them for 90 minutes at least.
After 24 Serie A matches, Cesare Prandelli's men sit a lowly 11th in the table – a far cry from last season when they finished a creditable fourth. A poor October, during which they only managed two points from four matches, severely damaged their league hopes and Alberto Gilardino and his team-mates have continued to flatter to deceive on the domestic front thereafter.
In Europe however, it has been a totally different story. In a group with fancied outsiders Debreceni and continental heavyweights Lyon and Liverpool, Fiorentina stormed to first place to book their place in the Round of 16. La Viola will now be out to extend their run of five straight wins in Europe against a star-studded line-up including French playmaker Franck Ribery.
“We must forget our poor form in Serie A and give our maximum to repeat our performances in the group stage of the Champions League,” declared Fiorentina goalkeeper Sebastien Frey. “Having come this far in the competition is like a bonus for us. To face Bayern will be a unique experience and you don't need an incentive to prepare for such games."
Stuttgart find themselves in a similar situation to Fiorentina as they prepare for tonight's meeting with Barcelona, the Champions League and FIFA Club World Cup holders. The team from the south-west of Germany got off to a miserable start to the season and replaced Markus Babbel with former Tottenham Hotspur and Basle coach Christian Gross. Since the 55-year-old took over, things have been looking far more promising for the team that finished third in the 2008/09 Bundesliga.
Stuttgart have dragged themselves out of the relegation mire and up to tenth in the league, and, while still some way off the European spots, they have won five of Gross's first six league games in charge. They only came off the rails last Saturday with a 3-1 defeat at home to Hamburg, for whom new signing Ruud van Nistelrooy rose from the bench to score twice.
However, they will be hoping that the confidence they have built up since the turn of the year will serve them well on the European stage when reigning FIFA World Player Lionel Messi comes to town. Not that Barcelona will be brimming with their usual confidence, having fallen to their first defeat of the campaign at Atletico Madrid on Sunday.
Europa League respite the target
One team that really has its back to the wall at the moment is Hertha Berlin. The club from the German capital have managed the grand total of two league wins in 22 attempts this season, leaving them firmly anchored to the bottom of the league. New coach Friedhelm Funkel has managed to turn things around slightly, with Hertha picking up six points from five matches since the winter break – as many as they managed in total during the first half of the season.
That said, Hertha are another team who have thrived on the European stage, going beyond the group stage of the Europa League. On Thursday night, they will cross swords with Benfica, having already faced their rivals Sporting twice in the group stage, winning one and losing the other. Though their main aim at the moment is maintaining their Bundesliga status, star striker Theofanis Gekas and his team-mates will be looking to pick up a morale-boosting win in midweek.
The Round of 32 will see a duel between two of this season's biggest flops, Villarreal and Wolfsburg. The latter hoisted the Bundesliga trophy aloft a mere nine months ago but have not managed a win in their last 12 matches, slipping to 12th in the league and ending any lingering hopes of making it back into the Champions League next season.
El Submarino Amarillo at least have a reasonable run in the Europa League to their name this season. They came second in a tough group, ahead of Lazio and Levski Sofia and behind unbeaten Austrian outfit Salzburg. In the Spanish top flight, though, last season's fifth-placed team are a lowly tenth this time around, with coach Ernesto Valverde aware that his troops are drastically under-achieving.
Atletico Madrid currently find themselves somewhere in between – better off than Hertha Berlin but below Spanish rivals Villarreal. Having finished fourth in La Liga last year, they currently rest 11th, a mere eight points off relegation-placed Real Valladolid.
Quique Flores's men were particularly disappointing in the Champions League group phase, failing to record a single win in six matches in a section also including Chelsea and Porto. Indeed, only an away goal allowed them to scrape into third place ahead of APOEL Nicosia and secure a Europa League place. The Spanish capital outfit will have their work cut out in the Round of 32, however, against Turkish big-spenders Galatasaray.
Liverpool, meanwhile, are already 14 points adrift of leaders Chelsea at the top of the Premier League. Last year's runners-up have been hit by injuries and have struggled for consistency all season. Rafa Benitez's men are now in serious danger of missing out on European football next season, with plenty of teams breathing down their necks.
The Champions League failed to provide the antidote to their poor domestic form, with the Reds falling at the group stage. The Europa League is now their only hope of saving their season, and on Thursday evening Steven Gerrard and Co will take on Romania's Unirea Urziceni, who enjoyed their recent stint in Europe's premier club competition.
"Clearly I would prefer to be fighting for the title or for the Champions League, but you must accept the situation," said Benitez. "You have to be positive and turn things in your favour. Now we have another opportunity (of playing in Europe) and we must try to keep playing better.
“We have got to keep progressing in the Europa League. There are still big clubs involved. If we can get through a couple of rounds, though, I’m sure the atmosphere will be really good because the fans want to see us winning trophies.”
So, will the troubles of Fiorentina, Stuttgart, Hertha Berlin, Wolsburg, Liverpool, Atletico Madrid and Villarreal heighten over the next few days, or will their chances of ending the season with silverware enhance?