Bayern Munich survived a fight back at Hansa Rostock to come away with a 2-1 win and open a three-point gap at the top of the Bundesliga on Friday night thanks to goals by Franck Ribery and Luca Toni.
Bayern took time to warm up start the winter break but were soon blowing hot
This was the first Bundesliga game of 2008 after the six-week winter break and Bayern looked to be cruising having built a 2-0 half-time lead, only to concede an early second-half goal as Rostock made a fight of it.
Having hammered Hansa 3-0 on the opening weekend of the season last August, Bayern struggled in the run up to the winter break with two lifeless 0-0 draws against mid-table sides and had seen their six-point lead in October evaporate by December.
But Bayern had their French midfield star Ribery to thank when he put them ahead by converting Ze Roberto's cross to beat Hansa goalkeeper Stefan Waechter on ten minutes.
The winter break had clearly benefited Bayern as their star-studded attack poured forward with gusto and strikers Toni and Miroslav Klose both narrowly missing their target.
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Italian World Cup winner Toni bagged his tenth league goal of the season - and his 19th in all competitions for Bayern this season - when he latched onto defender Willy Sagnol's pass and made it 2-0 on 42 minutes.
But Hansa made a game of it and were the first to score after the break when striker Enrico Kern broke down the right flank and his shot beat Bayern goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, but the shot hit the post.
Christian Rahn smashed the rebound past Kahn, but onto the cross bar and when the ball fell to Kern again he made no mistake and drove his shot home on 52 minutes.
Hansa had the chance to draw level moments later when only a superb tackle from Ze Roberto denied midfielder Fin Bartels a clear shot on goal.
And Toni had squandered a chance to put the game beyond doubt ten minutes from time when he powered his way through the defence, but smashed his shot over the bar.
Bayern's win now puts pressure on their main title rivals Werder Bremen to pick up a win at home to strugglers VfL Bochum and close the three-point gap behind the league leaders.
Gates surge as excitement builds
The close title race, currently contested by Bayern, Bremen and Hamburg, is a reason why the league is heading for record spectator attendances for the seventh successive season, officials said Friday.
Gates in the top two divisions were up 3.75 percent over last season to 8,601,886 in the first half of the current campaign, the German Soccer League (DFL) said. Average attendance in the top-flight Bundesliga division was a best-ever 38,529 while second-division gates averaged 17,693, up 10.83 percent.
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The average price for a ticket to a Bundesliga games costs 19.32 euros ($28.75). According to consultants Deloitte & Touche, the Bundesliga's ticket prices are considerably lower than the England' Premier League (51 euros) and Spain's Primera Division (33 euros).
Lots of new, untested players
Germany clubs were also busier than ever before in the January transfer window, with 50 new players joining the Bundesliga as spending went above 48 million euros ($71 million). Together with the summer transfers totaling almost 195 million euros, it takes the outlay on new players to a record 242.25 million euros for the Bundesliga for a single season.
But fans hoping for an immediate influx of international stars will be disappointed. Most teams have strengthened squads with young but largely untested players with an eye to the future.
Bayern, who splashed out some 70 million euros in the summer on big-name players such as Luca Toni and Franck Ribery, again wrote the biggest check -- 12 million euros -- to Sao Paulo for the young Brazilian defender Breno.
Czech striker and Bundesliga old acquaintance Jan Koller has returned to Germany's Nuremberg from Monaco for 1 million euros.
Hitzfeld's second farewell
Borowski said he wants to beat Bayern before joining them
The second half of the season will also mark the last 17 games for Bayern coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, who wants to bid farewell to German soccer -- again -- with another Bundesliga title in May.
Munich used the hibernation period to select former Germany coach and Munich player Jürgen Klinsmann as Hitzfeld's replacement and on Wednesday unveiled American Martin Vasquez as Klinsmann's assistant.
Bayern started superbly into the season, but then slumped in the closing stages of 2007 with just one win in their last seven games, with a mere four goals scored in the period and a six-point lead thrown away.
General manager Uli Hoeness named the second half "breathtaking" and named the team fit for the three-title quest in the league, German Cup and UEFA Cup.
Hitzfeld, however, warned that "we will need a few more games to be in our best shape," but the coach maintained he was looking forward to finishing the season with Bayern.
"I only have four months left to work with the team, and I am going to enjoy them," he said.
Captains pick Munich to win
Munich are the top title favorite among players as well with 15 of the 18 team captains seeing them in front of Bremen at the end of the season.
Toni has had a successful start to his Bundesliga career
Bremen host lowly VfL Bochum on Sunday after losing their Cup game 2-1 at Borussia Dortmund, but midfielder Tim Borowski is upbeat that his team, even with national team midfielder Torsten Frings out with another knee injury, is good enough for the title before he joins Munich in summer.
"Of course I want to come to Munich as Bundesliga champion," he told Thursday's edition of Kicker sports magazine.
Third-placed SV Hamburg host No. 7 Hanover 96 on Saturday after a 3-0 Cup win at third division Essen which indicated that they could be a threat for the top duo.
Schalke 04 hope to rebound from a cup defeat in Wolfsburg on Sunday against mid-table champions VfB Stuttgart.
The other games, all on Saturday, are Energie Cottbus vs. Bayer Leverkusen, SC Karlsruhe vs. Nuremberg, MSV Duisburg vs. Borussia Dortmund, Hertha Berlin vs. Eintracht Frankfurt and Arminia Bielefeld vs. VfL Wolfsburg.