Bayern Munich and Schalke 04 sit atop the Bundesliga level on points. Munich have a tough match with third place Stuttgart; Schalke host lowly Freiburg. Who'll finish as "winter champs?"
Ailton and Kobiashvili have been key in Schalke's rise to the top
The first half of the 2004/2005 Bundesliga season has seen its share of surprises -- some pleasant, some not. Wolfsburg led the league more than half of the time but have faded of late.
The promoted sides Mainz, Nuremberg and Bielefeld all have played better than average soccer, doing what they have to do to retain their position in Germany's top division. On the flip side, traditional clubs like Dortmund, Kaiserslautern and Mönchengladbach are struggling to avoid relegation.
Everyone measures themselves against Bayern
But when all is said and done, everyone turns their attention to Bayern Munich. Level on points with Schalke 04, Felix Magath's side host third place Stuttgart on Saturday. With a victory, Munich will assure themselves of spending the winter break at the top of the standings.
Felix Magath has had a successful hand in Munich.
Magath plays down the importance of the 'winter championship,' but admits that it is "psychologically important." In the online magazine kicker, Goalkeeper Oliver Kahn added that "(It) is definitely an advantage if you are in first place at the winter break."
Stuttgart has a score to settle with their ex-coach Magath. The two clubs met a month ago in a German Cup match which Bayern handily won, 3-0. Since their departure from that competition, Stuttgart have won three of four Bundesliga contests, including a 5-2 demolition of Bochum last Saturday.
Schalke 04 have an easier task at hand. Last place Freiburg (10 points) comes to town, and the difference between the two clubs could hardly be greater at the moment. Schalke are brimming with confidence and the word "Championship" is no longer taboo in Gelsenkirchen. Under Ralf Rangnick, who took over for Jupp Heynckes on Sept. 29, Schalke have won an impressive nine of ten Bundesliga matches.
Freiburg are floundering at the bottom of the standings. They have lost four in a row, including a 6-0 shellacking at the hands of champions Bremen at home last weekend. In Freiburg, the word "relegation" is no longer taboo, as if they have already accepted their fate.
Berlin and Hanover soaring
Marcelinho (9 goals, 9 assists) has single-handedly revived Berlin.
That Berlin are in the top half of the standings should not come as too great a surprise. The team from the capital has always had talent. Hanover is another matter, though. Yet Erik Gerets' club has shown little respect for the expectations of the experts and on 28 points currently hold down fourth place.
The two teams pride themselves on stingy defenses, both having only given up a league-leading 15 goals. American Steven Cherundolo, one of Hanover's goal scorers in the team's win over Hamburg last weekend, says one lapse may make the difference in the match. "I think a free kick or a corner kick, one defensive mistake could decide the game. We need to keep their key player Marcelinho under control."