Despite having some distance left to run, the Bundesliga has turned into the home stretch. With the winter break over, the top three teams broke from the chasing pack with victories in their first games of the New Year.
Bayern Munich maintained their league leader status with a 3-0 win
The Bundesliga got underway again after the winter break on Friday evening with league leaders Bayern Munich entertaining mid-table Hamburg SV. The Bavarian giants seemed happy to be back and looked as though they had celebrated the festive spell in moderation as Bayern romped to an energetic 3-0 win over HSV.
Felix Magath's side took the lead with a 21st minute Claudio Pizarro header from Mehmet Scholl's free kick and whethered a spirited HSV resurgeance before hitting the visitors hard in a tiring second half. Goals from Bastian Schweinsteiger and Roy Makaay completed the win to consolidate Munich's lead at the top of the Bundesliga.
Pizarro opens the scoring for Bayern against HSV.
The majority of the chasing pack returned to action on Saturday. Second-placed Schalke 04 played host to floundering champions Werder Bremen and were lucky to survive a first half where the Royal Blues appeared leaden-footed. Schalke improved dramatically after the break, taking the lead through striker Gerald Asamoah two minutes after the restart.
Werder equalized when Miroslav Klose was bundled over in the penalty area and Valerien Ismael converted the spot-kick. Schalke's Ailton hit the side-netting five minutes later but he made no mistake when the outstanding Asamoah found him with a short pass after 67 minutes to give the home side a 2-1 win which kept Schalke's championship aspirations alive.
Schalke sunk Werder's title defense with goals from Asamoah and Ailton.
Third-placed Stuttgart traveled to Mainz for their first game of the year and fell behind early on when Fabian Gerber lifted the ball over Timo Hildebrand after taking a sweet pass from Antonio da Silva in the 13th minute.
Dimo Wache's own goal got Stuttgart back into the game early in the second half and then Aliaksandr Hleb added the second in the 54th minute before surging threough the Mainz defence to set up Cacau for the third with 66 minutes gone. Christoph Teinert caused VfB a scare by pulling one back for Mainz in injury-time but the points went to Stuttgart who remain on the title pace.
Wolfsburg challenge hit by battling BVB
Former league leaders VfL Wolfsburg were in need of a lift following a run of results before the break which undermined their previously strong, although surprising, title challenge. Unfortunately, the winners in the day were Borussia Dortmund who came and conquered with their own challenge in mind: staying up.
Dortmund eased their relegation fears with a fine victory courtesy of new signing Ebi Smolarek who scored with a left-foot shot after 55 minutes. Five minutes later, Jan Koller took a through ball from Lars Ricken, held off the covering defender and tucked BVB's second past the keeper. Facundo Quiroga pulled one back with eight minutes to go after being set up by Martin Petrov but the Wolves went down and slipped to seven points adrift of Bayern at the top.
Dortmund helped their own cause and severely dented Wolfsburg's title hopes with a vital win.
Kaiserslautern, another team which had flirted with relegation for most of the early part of the season, jumped three places to a comfortable 10th with a comprehensive 3-1 win away at Nuremberg. Herve Lembi opened the scoring six minutes after the break and Stefan Blank, signed this week from Alemmania Aachen, side-footed in for the second on the hour.
Sven Müller's reply for Nuremberg in the 66th minute offered the home side brief hope but Dimitris Grammozis sealed the win for the visitors with a free kick that squeezed through the wall.
Relegation congestion easing in the cellar
Borussia Mönchengladbach earned some breathing space in the relegation zone by beating Arminia Bielefeld 1-0. Australian international Craig Moore, signed from Scottish club Rangers in the transfer window, made a match-winning debut for Mönchengladbach with a header in the 52nd minute to give his side a valuable win that lifts them away from the basement. Gladbach are now five points clear of the drop zone.
Stalemate in the relgation battle between Freiburg and Rostock.
Bottom club Freiburg were not so lucky. The basement dwellers will feel aggrieved not to have beaten their fellow relegation candidates Hansa Rostock after dominating the second half of their crucial contest.
Soumalia Coulibaly hit the bar in the 62nd minute and Samuel Koejoe had a goal disallowed when he bundled the ball over the line only for referee Markus Merk to blow for a foul on the keeper. There was little else to cheer in the 0-0 draw which did either sides no real favors in their battle to escape the drop.
Berlin slip-up in title pursuit
Hertha Berlin's resurgent form before the break failed to continue past the New Year as the league's form team missed the chance to go fourth by letting a 2-0 lead slip at Bochum on Sunday. Nando Rafael chipped in the first and then Gilberto lashed in the second within the first quarter of an hour, but a Peter Madsen penalty six minutes before half-time and a deserved equalizer from Vratislav Lokvenc robbed the capital's club the chance to maintain their impressive winning streak.
Rudi Völler was left beaming in the other Sunday game as Bayer Leverkusen put on a virtuoso performance in their first match since the former Germany coach rejoined the club as sporting director, beating Hannover 3-0 away from home.
Traveling Bayer ease to away win
Bayer Leverkusen eased to a 3-0 victory over Hanover 96.
Paul Freier set up the opening goal in the 18th minute with a fine cross for Andriy Voronin to head into the roof of the net and Dimitar Berbatov made it 2-0 nine minutes before the break with a turn and shot from outside the area. A deflected Freier shot in the 58th minute completed the scoring and spoiled the party for Hanover fans who had come to celebrate the official opening of their rebuilt World Cup stadium.