If coverage of tonight's Champions' League second-round tie between VfB Stuttgart and Chelsea was destined for movie theatres, the billing would read: "The Torturer vs the Tinkerman." Neither Felix Magath nor Claudio Ranieri will be kicking a ball in the Gottlieb-Daimler Stadion but their team selection, tactical approach and motivational prowess are likely to determine which club takes a first-leg advantage.
For Stuttgart and Chelsea are two clubs on the slide. Both sit third in their domestic leagues, a position which once would have been cause for celebration, but now fails to meet raised expectations. Chelsea's travails are well known to English audiences, as is their slip since leading the Premiership at the start of December. Stuttgart are in a similar decline, their Bundesliga lead having dissolved through poor results either side of the winter break.
Yet while Ranieri is widely regarded as a lame duck manager, Magath is still in charge of his own destiny, with Stuttgart waiting on his decision. Magath's reputation ("Saddam" is another nickname) has attracted Bayern Munich, whose players are again invoking the "FC Hollywood" nickname.
Magath, who scored the winning goal in the 1983 European Cup final, earning Hamburg a surprise win over Juventus, is a fabled disciplinarian. Jan-Aage Fjortoft, once of Middlesbrough and Barnsley, who played under him at Eintracht Frankfurt, once said: "I don't know if Magath could have saved the Titanic but I do know the survivors would have been extremely fit."
Magath claims to have mellowed but recently made his players stand still for 90 minutes on a freezing morning, telling them: "If you don't move during a game, why should you move during training?"
These methods usually work best with a young team like Stuttgart but such players are also more vulnerable to dips in confidence. The question Magath has to answer tonight is whether his mixture of kid glove - he often consults leading players about tactics - and iron hand can repair his team's morale.
After successive defeats by Arsenal, each more comprehensive than the 2-1 scoreline suggests, Ranieri has a similar task. His approach is more kindly but he needs to show some severity in team selection.
It may be easy to drop Neil Sullivan, which he will do if Carlo Cudicini passes a fitness test, but will Ranieri dare drop a veteran European campaigner like Claude Makelele, a notable failure against Arsenal? The argument for playing Scott Parker in the holding role, facilitating the inclusion of Joe Cole further forward, is that Chelsea need to score against one of the most miserly defences in Europe. Away goals, in two-legs ties, are usually decisive. Caution is likely to prevail.
"It is very important not to concede a goal," Ranieri said as Chelsea arrived in Southern Germany without Adrian Mutu (thigh). Damien Duff was with the party and should be on the bench. "I'm always confident," Ranieri added. "I have a good team in good condition. I don't think the defeats by Arsenal have had a big effect on morale but it's important we don't just talk about it. We must show it as well."
There is a belief that Chelsea are better equipped for the sporadic European campaign than the arduous domestic one but, said Ranieri, tonight's match may be similar to a Premiership one. "Stuttgart are a disciplined team who like to play good football but also long, high balls," he explained.
This may be good for Parker. Though he joined Chelsea partly to experience the different puzzles set by continental opponents, and thus improve his international prospects, a familiar style of play should ease his integration.
"It's probably my biggest game at club level," he said. Though ironically dropped from the England squad last week, the first named since he left Charlton, he added: "I still feel being part of what's going on at Chelsea is best for me. It'll be difficult to get into the Euro 2004 squad because there are so many good players in my position but I need to keep going because there could be injuries."
Parker added his voice to the chorus of players backing Ranieri. "We are all behind him," Parker said. "Personally I'm shocked he's under so much pressure. He brought me to the club and I want to do well for him." Fine words, but Ranieri needs results, not platitudes.
VfB Stuttgart (probable 4-4-2): Hildebrand; Hinkel, Zivkovic, Bordon, Lahm; Hleb, Fernando Meira, Soldo, Meissner; Szabics, Kuranyi.
Chelsea (probable 4-4-2): Cudicini; Johnson, Gallas, Terry, Bridge; Parker, Makelele, Lampard, Géremi; Hasselbaink, Gudjohnsen.
Referee: K Vassaras (Greece).Reuse content