Sat, Dec 11, 2004 - Page 18 News List

Bundesliga teams target top spot ahead of break

AP , FRANKFURT, GERMANY

Few attach much importance to the title of "fall champion" in the Bundesliga, but it does have some psychological value going into the winter break.

The team in the lead halfway through the season more often than not wins the championship -- that's happened 28 times in the past 41 years.

Three teams go into the 17th and final round before the six-week winter stoppage with a chance of spending the break at the top.

The top match has leader Bayern Munich (33 points) playing No. 3 Stuttgart (30) at home.

Schalke, which also has 33 points but a weaker goal difference in second place, faces an easier job when it hosts bottom-place Freiburg, which has lost seven straight.

Should Bayern lose at home, Schalke could move to the top of the standings.

In other matches involving top-ranked teams, No. 4 Hannover (28) hosts No. 7 Hertha Berlin (25), No. 5 and defending champion Werder Bremen (27) plays Kaiserslautern and No. 6 Wolfsburg (27) meets surprising No. 9 Arminia Bielefeld on Sunday.

Other matches today are Mainz vs. Nuremberg, Bochum vs. Hamburger SV and Hansa Rostock vs Borussia Dortmund. Sunday's match between Borussia Moenchengladbach and Bayer Leverkusen completes the schedule.

Bayern trounced Stuttgart 3-0 in the German Cup one month ago but Bayern players expect a different game this time against coach Felix Magath's old team.

"For sure it's not going to be that easy," goalkeeper and captain Oliver Kahn said. "Four weeks ago they were in a slump, now they have recovered. They are one of the challengers for the title.''

Stuttgart will be without captain Zvonimir Soldo, who tore a calf muscle in practice on Thursday.

Magath's team played to a tepid 2-2 draw at Ajax Amsterdam in the Champions League on Wednesday. Having already qualified, Magath rested some players.

"The match against Stuttgart is much more important, we could lose a lot more," Magath said.

"This title of 'fall champion' doesn't mean anything to me. But it's psychologically important, both for my team and for the opposition," added Magath, who came to Bayern at the start of the season as coach.

Schalke's powerful general manager Rudi Assauer predicted that Bayern would spend the winter at the top.

"Bayern will beat Stuttgart and it has a better goal difference. But it would be good for us to go into the break on the same number of points," Assauer said.

"The `title' itself has no advantage. We were `fall champion' in 2000 and still didn't win the title."

That was the heartbreaking season for Schalke when Bayern clinched the title in the final round with a win in injury time -- while Schalke players were already celebrating what they thought was their championship.

Bayern general manager Uli Hoeness said the "fall championship" did carry some weight, psychologically.

"Spending the winter in first place is not bad for confidence," Hoeness said.

Should Bayern and Schalke both win, they'll move at least five points clear of the competition.

``It looks like Schalke will be our closest challenger, although I think Bremen will still break through and I am not counting Stuttgart out either,'' Hoeness told Kicker magazine. "One of these four teams will be German champion."

Bremen has been bolstered by reaching the second round of the Champions League, along with Bayern and Leverkusen.

Schalke made it to the UEFA Cup. The team has blossomed under Ralf Rangnick, who replaced Jupp Heynckes when he was fired after Schalke lost three of its first four games in the club's worst start in 11 years.

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