PREVIEW-Soccer-Stuttgart suffer familiar winter slump


BERLIN, Feb 14 (Reuters) - VfB Stuttgart have fallen into their traditional winter slump with a run of five consecutive league defeats leaving them closer to the relegation dogfight than the chase for a place in Europe.

Coach Bruno Labbadia has been repeatedly let down by his blundering defence and his only crumb of comfort is that Sunday's opponents Hoffenheim (1630 GMT) have even more problems than his own team.

Hoffenheim, 16th in the 18-team table and occupying the relegation playoff spot, fined goalkeeper Tim Wiese and midfielder Tobias Wies after they were thrown out of a carnival event by security guards for unruly behaviour on Monday.

The previous week their Peruvian defender Luis Advincula suffered minor injuries in a car crash, bringing back memories of September's incident when Boris Vukcevic was left in a coma for eight weeks following a severe crash.

Stuttgart, who reached the Champions League round of 16 three seasons ago, had a seven-match winless run between November and February last season, although they eventually recovered to claim a place in the Europa League.

"In the last few years, we have got used to going downhill and we know how to get around the situation," said striker Martin Harnik.

This time, with the team languishing in 14th spot and only nine points clear of Hoffenheim, sporting director Fredi Bobic has set them a more modest target of 40 points which would see them finish in mid-table.

"Unfortunately, we have wrecked the good position we had at the halfway mark," said Bobic. "We have often been naive in defence," he added. "Obviously, we have to cut out these individual mistakes. But when you get into a downward spiral, it can be difficult to stop."


Another club in trouble are Schalke 04, who have won only one game in four since they fired Huub Stevens in December and replaced him with Jens Kellers.

The Royal Blues, who play sixth-placed Mainz 05 on Saturday, were grateful to lose only 4-0 to leaders Bayern Munich after a dismal display in their last outing.

Kellers was given a vote of confidence by sporting director Horst Heldt after that game when he said: "It's the same as we said before -- Kellers is staying as coach until the end of the season."

However, Stevens was fired in December after similar comments.

At the top, the question is when rather than if Bayern Munich will wrap up the title after they moved 15 points clear of second-placed Dortmund.

The Bavarians have won all four matches without conceding a goal since the Christmas break and their huge lead is a Bundesliga record for this stage of the season.

In all, they have scored 55 goals in 21 league matches this season and conceded a mere seven.

"At the moment, the way we're playing our football looks so easy. But it's all the product of hard work," said coach Jupp Heynckes, who will be replaced by former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola at the of the season.

"We can still optimise a few things. We have to keep working on ourselves, because there are always things you can make more perfect."

Club president Uli Hoeness said it was too early to celebrate.

"There can be no talk of the title race being over," he said. "There's no reason for euphoria. There are plenty of games to go and we're still in three competitions."

Dortmund, who collapsed to a 4-1 home defeat by Hamburg SV last Saturday, have 39 points and host Eintracht Frankfurt, who are only two points behind them in fourth place.

Third-placed Bayer Leverkusen, on 38 points, host relegation-threatened Augsburg. (Reporting by Brian Homewood; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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