Bundesliga Focus – End of the road for Babbel

Vfb Stuttgart Coach Markus Babbel was finally put out of his misery this week as the ex-German international saw his troublesome reign in charge come to an abrupt end following the weekends 1-1 draw with relegation threatened Bochum.

After an inspirational run from November, 2008 – that saw the club gain a Champions League birth – much was expected from the inexperienced coach this term. However, the club’s disastrous league form since the summer saw Babbel pay the ultimate price, despite being given a vote of confidence just last week. His sacking makes him the fifth managerial casualty since the beginning of the Bundesliga season – and Stuttgart were quick to name his replacement.

The fact that Christian Gross was named as the club’s new coach less than 24 hours after Babbel’s departure proves the club were always planning on making a change. Stuttgart president Erwin Staudt had initially said that no change would be made before the upcoming winter break, but most felt a sacking was imminent nevertheless. Ex-Tottenham boss Gross was swiftly handed a two-and-a-half year deal to take charge of the Swabians with the hope of guiding the club away from relegation, something that became more of a possibility following the weekend result. It was that result that seemed to hasten Staudt’s decision to sack Babbel, as the games outcome sparked a hostile reaction from the club’s fans ultimately leaving the president with no choice but to call for action.

Even before the game, it was apparent supporters weren’t happy. As the players arrived at the ground they were met by a chorus of boo’s from the club’s hardcore following, with the majority directed at Babbel. A positive result may have quelled any further discontent, however as the 89th minute ticked on the clock with the scores level, a banner reading “you have just used up your credit” was unfurled. That turned out to be the beginning of what were volatile protests outside the ground at full-time with police having to use battens to hold back angry fans from storming Staudt’s office. Given such a reaction, there was only one thing the Stuttgart president could do to stop a full scale riot ensuing – and that was to announce the coaches’ sacking.

Although the decision to speed up Babbel’s exit was deemed as sensible by the media, there was unanimous condemnation for the actions of the Stuttgart supporters. Babbel himself labelled the behaviour unacceptable, while the ever unpopular Jens Lehmann decided, in his usual strange way, to simply insult the fans. The 40-year-old keeper bizarrely branded the supporters as “pre-pubescent” and slammed them for trying to influence the club’s decisions. Although commendable for sticking up for Babbel, it seems Lehmann is hardly one to talk. The former German No.1 was one of the club’s many serial underperformers, and was even suspended in October for skipping training to attend a beer festival without permission.

Despite his misdemeanours, Lehmann is not the only one who will shoulder some of the blame for Stuttgart’s current situation. High profile signings such as Alexandr Hleb and Pavel Pogrebnyak have disappointed, while Thomas Hitzlsperger was stripped of the captaincy because his performances had become diabolical to say the least. Ultimately, Babbel can point to the loss of Mario Gomez as the main reason for the club’s struggles. Vfb have netted just 12 times in 15 league games since the loss of Gomez, and no-one has really picked up his goalscoring mantle. The club tried in vain to bring in Klass-Jan Huntelaar and Hoffenheim’s Demba Ba, but the lack of a potent striker is a problem Gross will now inherit.

On paper, Stuttgart’s squad is easily good enough to warrant a place in the upper echelons of the Bundesliga. There may need to be a couple of minor changes in January, but the new boss can be generally happy with what is at his disposal. The 55-year-old clearly made an instant impact with the players, as the performance during the 3-1 midweek Champions League win over Unirea Urziceni showed. That result saw the club progress to the last 16, remarkable considering they have won just two league games all season. The result should act as a good platform to change the ailing club’s fortunes, but it is domestic form that will be a priority for Gross. The weekend trip to high-flying Mainz will no doubt answer a lot of questions about Stuttgart’s credentials – but its a game that must be won to win back the club’s supporters.

Meanwhile, the rift between FC Bayern striker Luca Toni and his Coach Louis van Gaal appears to be growing. Last week, the Italian striker spoke of his distain for the Dutchman and appeared to insinuate he would leave the club in January. Those rumours were confirmed this week during an interview when Toni revealed he is actively looking for a return to his homeland. The 2007/08 Bundesliga top scorer said: “I miss everything about my country: the fans, my friends, my mum. I don’t yet know which team I will play for but I’m sure I’ll be returning to Italy.” During the mid-week press conference, van Gaal also seemed to dismiss any chances of reconciliation by bluntly saying: “I’ll do nothing to convince him to stay.”

Elsewhere, it may only be December but the first piece of January transfer business has already been concluded. Hamburg have completed the permanent signing of on-loan Venezuelan Tomas Rincon. The 21-year-old defensive-midfielder joined the club on an initial year long loan last January and was due to return to parent club Deportivo Tachira at the end of the month. However, Coach Bruno Labbadia has been impressed with Rincon since taking over in the summer and was keen to tie up the deal early. Rincon has only made four appearances this season, with his first league start coming in last week’s game with Hoffenheim, but is regarded as an important player for the future. A delighted Labbadia commented: “We’re confident that he will keep improving.”

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