Barca vulnerable ahead of Stuttgart clash

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STUTTGART, February 22 – Reigning European kings Barcelona travel to Stuttgart on Tuesday for a Champions League last-16 first leg clash that a few months ago looked as if it would be a formality for the Spanish giants.But with the German side on rampant form of late, winning six of their last seven matches including a 5-1 drubbing of Cologne away on Saturday, the Catalans might find themselves with anything but a walk in the park.

"We want to create an upset," said Brazilian-born striker Cacau, who scored four of Stuttgart’s goals on Saturday.

Barca’s captain Carles Puyol is aware that they will have to be careful.

"We know that it will not be easy and if we are not fully concentrated then things will go badly. At this stage mistakes can be very expensive," he said.

"But I think the team is playing well and we are looking forward to playing in the Champions League."

Barca won a historic six trophies last year, including the league, Champions League and Cup treble, and this season they have lost just three games.

But their defence of the Champions League title got off to a slow start and in the group stages they were on the ropes after a defeat at home by Russian side Rubin Kazan.

They won a crucial home game though against Italian giants Inter Milan to help them through to the next round.

Their first league defeat of the season came two weeks ago against Atletico Madrid but on Saturday they put any thoughts of going off the boil to bed with an emphatic 4-0 win over Racing Santander.

Key players Dani Alves and Xavi Hernandez all missed out due to injury, as did Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but the Swede’s boots were filled by Frenchman Thierry Henry who returned after several weeks on the bench to score Barca’s second.

Still, coach Pep Guardiola called for more from his stars.

"There were good things about the performance but at the highest level you need to play better and demand more of yourself.

"We need to play the ball around more simply and play a bit better in order to go to Germany with confidence."

Alves, Xavi and Ibrahimovic are all in the squad due to fly over.

Stuttgart meanwhile have had a roller coaster few months to follow up their stellar 2008-9 season when they came within a whisker of winning the Bundesliga, only to lose out in a seat-of-their-pants last day.

This season, a 4-0 hammering by Bayer Leverkusen on the first day set the tone, and by late November, Stuttgart had crashed to 17th in the table, with only the hapless Hertha Berlin below them.

But since firing their coach Markus Babbel and bringing in the Swiss Christian Gross at the start of December, the worm has turned, with the team rising to ninth in the table.

They won five games on the trot, including a confidence-boosting 3-1 victory against reigning Bundesliga champions Wolfsburg and a 4-1 hammering of Borussia Dortmund.

After a slip-up against Hamburg, Saturday found Stuttgart back on form with a vengeance, with Cacau running rings around Cologne’s defence to score a first-half hat-trick before making it four on 74 minutes.

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