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International Soccer
Don't sign off on Stuttgart yet

Brian Westfall, Soccer Editor

Stoppage Time Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Less than two weeks ago, VfB Stuttgart coach Armin Veh admitted fifth place would be a great finish for the defending Bundesliga champions.

"If I could sign a contract that says we will finish in fifth place," he told the league's website, "I would consider that option."

Veh was being realistic, and you could hardly blame him.

Stuttgart started the season with three wins and six losses in its first 10 games. In last season's championship campaign, VfB lost just six games all year.

"In the first half of the season," Veh said, "we failed to play to our potential."

So the fact that Stuttgart climbed from 15th after four weeks, to 10th after 20 weeks, to sixth by late March, had Veh convinced just finishing fifth - and earning a berth in the UEFA Cup - would be enough for a successful season.

Armin Veh
Armin Veh admitted fifth place would be a great finish.
Champions League? Veh wasn't even considering a return to Europe's premier club event.

But after sitting sixth for four straight weeks, Stuttgart finally broke through and moved up to fifth with a 1-0 win over Hamburg last week on Roberto Hilbert's goal.

The victory, which came with leading scorer Mario Gomez out injured, was Stuttgart's sixth during an eight-game unbeaten streak.

All of a sudden, VfB is playing more like a Champions League team than a side that is only good enough for the UEFA Cup - European soccer's NIT.

"Our positive results have helped us to steadily gain back our self- confidence, something that is essential in football," Veh said. "Our team has much more confidence than a few weeks ago."

After its slow start, Stuttgart edged Bayer Leverkusen 1-0 on Nov. 10 to spark a stretch of five wins in six games - including handing Bayern Munich its first loss.

But a three-game losing streak against Arminia Bielefeld, Schalke and Hertha Berlin - when it was outscored 9-2 - dropped Stuttgart closer to relegation than a repeat.

Enter Stuttgart's eight-game unbeaten streak, during which it earned 20 of a possible 24 points, and the defending champions are a threat once again.

Although catching Bayern Munich, which is nine points in front of second-place Schalke and 12 clear of Stuttgart, is doubtful, second place is easily within reach.

Even more so if Stuttgart can repeat last year's amazing season-ending run. Stuttgart won its last eight games, including overcoming a one-goal deficit in its finale against Energie Cottbus for a 2-1 win that was the final piece in the team's first title since 1992.

Stuttgart is within three points of the three teams - Schalke, Hamburg and Werder Bremen - directly in front of it in the standings.

Stuttgart plays sixth-place Bayer Leverkusen on Sunday with Gomez, who trails only Bayern's Luca Toni in goals scored this season with 15, still sidelined.

Gomez could return for the following match against struggling Nurnberg, and three matches against top-eight clubs follow in the next four weeks. That stretch starts at Bayern Munich, and also features games against eighth-place Eintracht and seventh-place Wolfsburg.

If Stuttgart escapes that stretch still in contention for a top-five finish or higher, it wraps up the season against struggling Arminia Bielefeld. Based on the way things are going, the Champions League berths could easily come down to the final weekend.

A top-five finish would still be quite an accomplishment for Stuttgart, and mark the fifth time in the last six years the club has finished in the top five. Add in the fact that VfB has lost stars Kevin Kuranyi (Schalke), Philipp Lahm (Bayern Munich) and Alexander Hleb (Arsenal) in the last few years, and it would be even more impressive.

Still, Stuttgart can be thankful Veh didn't sign that fifth-place contract.

Schalke? Hamburg? Werder Bremen?

Well, there's no doubt those clubs wish he had.

Comments? Criticism? Applause?
Contact Tim Keeble at tkeeble@sportsnetwork.com
Contact Brian Westfall at bwestfall@sportsnetwork.com

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