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Bundesliga sides play catch-up with Dortmund as season restarts

Borussia Dortmund only lost twice during a stellar first half of the season that put them 10 points clear. In the first game after the winter break, Dortmund face Bayer Leverkusen - one of the teams that beat them.

Dortmund players celebrate

Dortmund's had an unprecedented first half

The opening match after the winter break is a real doozy. Third-place Bayer Leverkusen on Friday will host top-dog Borussia Dortmund , who emphatically dominated the first half of the season.

Never in the history of the Bundesliga has the 'fall champion' - the unofficial title in the German league for the team leading the table at the end of the first half - gone into the break with such a large lead. The team is 10 points clear of Mainz, who are in second place and tied on points with Leverkusen at 33.

But the team's coach, Juergen Klopp, has downplayed the accomplishment.

"We know that we've done nothing more than play a great first half of the season," he said. "Anything else doesn't concern us."

'Laws of nature'

Juergen Klopp

Klopp had plenty to celebrate over the holidays

However, if there is one team in the league that can take the pitch with confidence against Dortmund in the first game of 2011, it's Leverkusen. They handed Dortmund one of only two losses in the first half, defeating them 2-0 in their own stadium.

That was in the very first game of the season, though, and there are two big question marks next to Leverkusen's biggest stars in terms of their availability for Friday.

Midfielder Michael Ballack and striker Stefan Kiessling have been sidelined for weeks due to injury, and it is uncertain if either will take the pitch against Dortmund.

Leverkusen coach Jupp Heynckes isn't tipping his hand.

"They are both participating quite well in practice," Heynckes said, "But [Ballack] in particular knows that he still has some catching up to do. The laws of nature apply to football, too."

New teams mix it up for Europe

Whichever team wins the first game of the Bundesliga's second half, Dortmund and Leverkusen traditionally count among the Bundesliga's powerhouses who always stand a chance of winning the title. Mainz and Hanover 96, however, don't come up as often in such discussions.

But so far this season, Mainz and Hanover have managed to make some noise. While Mainz lead Leverkusen on points, Hanover are hot on their heels in fourth place, trailing by only two points.

Either team would be quite happy if they finished the year in the top five, qualifying for a European competition.

Stefan Kiessling

Kiessling is questionable against Dortmund

"We're certainly not dreaming about the Champions League, but we are more than happy with what we've achieved so far," said Mainz's club president, Harald Strutz.

In Hanover, they are simply concentrating on reaching the 40-point plateau, which would likely safeguard against being relegated to the second division, should the second half of the season take a turn for the worse.

"Our first goal is nine more points," said midfielder Sergio Pinto. "Then we'll set new goals."

The first half of the 2010/11 season was the best ever in Hanover club history.

Slumbering giants

Like many of the German Bundesliga's fans and players during the winter break, Bayern Munich attacker Thomas Mueller got a little antsy being away from soccer for so long.

"I was getting the shakes, because there wasn't a ball nearby," Mueller said of the four-week break from the Bundesliga.

Mueller's first game after the break with Bayern is on Saturday against Wolfsburg, and last year's champions have their work cut out for them in second half if they hope to defend their title. Bayern Munich are currently 14 points back from the lead and in fifth place. That would be a good return for some clubs, but it's well behind the prevailing expectation of excellence that is ever-present at Bayern.

"At the very front it's going to be very, very close," said Bayern defender Philipp Lahm. "Fourteen points is a lot. But if there's one team that can close that kind of a gap, it's FC Bayern."

Arjen Robben

Robben's absence has been sorely felt at Bayern

Bayern's chances will significantly improve with the return of Dutch international Arjen Robben after a long break due to an injury sustained while playing for his country this summer. In light of Robben's return, Bayern coach Louis van Gaal is viewing the second half very optimistically.

"We'll get more points than we did in the first round," van Gaal said, adding that it was "certain" Bayern would finish at least second in the table.

Bayern has the support of Schalke trainer Felix Magath, who said during the break that the German champion would be Bayern, "as usual." Magath used similar language while sprinting past Bayern on the way to the title two years ago with Wolfsburg, but it is unlikely he is being modest about his own team's chances at the title now.

Schalke had a brutal start to the season and were hovering in the drop zone for a while. But a furious finish to the first half meant Schalke managed to scramble to 10th, far from their second place finish at the end of last season.

And despite mixed results in league competition, Schalke are still alive in the Champions League and are in the running for the German cup.

Fight to stay afloat

At the bottom of the table, there are several teams who likely spent the winter break thinking long and hard about how to avoid being dropped down to the second division.

Moenchengladbach and Stuttgart currently occupy the last two spots in the table, which would result in automatic relegation.

Cologne is third from the bottom, which would earn them a playoff with the third-place team from the second division to determine who gets the Bundesliga spot.

St. Pauli, Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg are clear at the moment, but a strong push from any of the teams behind them could be troublesome unless they can turn things around in the second half.

Author: Arnulf Boettcher/mz
Editor: Rob Turner

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