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Bayern’s pursuers

Breezy northerners turn up the heat

The archives at Bayern reveal three Bundesliga seasons when the men in red achieved the feat of seizing top spot on the first matchday and holding it until the end of the campaign, most recently in 1984-5. Another “lights-to-flag” march to the title initially looked a possibility this term. After a 2-1 away win in Bochum on matchday 10, Ottmar Hitzfeld’s men led Werder Bremen and Hamburger SV by six points, but the Reds’ consecutive goalless draws since then have seen the lead over HSV and Bremen shrink to two and four points respectively.

Werder retain title hopes

“We’re still a little behind, but we’ve never said we’re out of the race,“ Werder skipper Frank Baumann declared after Saturday’s 1-0 defeat of Hansa Rostock. Bremen are now undefeated in seven. “We’ve never agreed with the people saying Bayern will inevitably end as champions,“ Director of Sport Klaus Allofs echoed. The tone in the Werder dressing room itself is presumably a great deal less understated.

Hamburg, the second of the northern duo most closely pursuing Bayern at this stage, are now undefeated in eleven competitive matches and have the best record in the Bundesliga for the calendar year 2007 so far. Saturday’s 2-1 home win against Hertha BSC has taken HSV to within touching distance of the leaders, but respected coach Huub Stevens is adopting a cautious tone: “It’s nice that our fans have begun to dream their dreams, but I’m not particularly interested in the current standings, just in the fact we’ve won our match.“

HSV ambitions on ice

“It’s too early for dreams,“ utility man Guy Demel agreed, although star playmaker Raphael van der Vaart is enjoying the look of the table at the moment. “I hope we can stay tucked in behind for as long as possible. You never know in football,“ the Dutch ace commented, “after all, the pressure’s on Bayern. They’re expected to win the league.“

The Bayern camp is still a relaxed place despite the change in the standings. “We don’t like it, but we’re not nervous either,“ said chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. “We’re not sensing their breath on our necks, we’re only looking at ourselves,“ offered Mark van Bommel, while Hamit Altintop remained optimistic. “The rest are on a roll, but we’ve been held 0-0 today. It’ll look different again once we get going.“

Kahn confident

Speaking on Sunday, Ottmar Hitzfeld was equally unconcerned. “Obviously, we know we’re being chased. We’re the leaders, and the leaders are always being hunted, but we can cope with the pressure.“ The General felt there could be a positive side to the tighter race at the top: “It can be dangerous if you’re six or seven points clear at this stage of the season. You can become complacent, but we have plenty of tension and drive right now.“

Tension will certainly be in the air on the next matchday. Bayern visit champions VfB Stuttgart, back on the rails with three wins in a row after a disastrous start to the campaign. HSV visit Schalke 04 and Bremen entertain Karlsruhe, who have an impressive 13 points from six away matches. Quoted in kicker magazine, FCB skipper Oliver Kahn exuded confidence: “Our quality and class will tell over a 34-match campaign. I’m convinced we’ll win the league.“