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Nearing peak form

Bayern serve notice of intent in title race

The elated players celebrated in front of their equally overjoyed travelling fans, Ottmar Hitzfeld and Michael Henke laughed and embraced, and Uli Hoeneß delivered a hymn of praise to the team a little later. Saturday's narrow but thoroughly deserved 1-0 triumph away to Schalke 04 provoked an outbreak of unconfined joy in the Bayern camp.

“I saw all the hallmarks of a top-class team today," Hoeneß enthused after Bayern's first-ever victory over S04 at the Arena AufSchalke, which opened its doors in 2001. The Bayern manager was aware the merited win could well prove a milestone en route to a 21st German league title. "We came here hoping to take another step towards the championship. We needed to win a six-pointer at some stage. We missed out against Bremen and Hamburg, but we've done what we needed to do today," he explained.

Yawning gap

Bayern have dropped points at home to title rivals in recent matches, but defeated both Bremen and Leverkusen away, and have now registered a first win at the Schalke Arena at the seventh time of asking. "We were also hoping to shock our rivals a little, showing them we'll keep winning on our travels. We've succeeded, so it was psychologically important too," Hitzfeld offered.

With Bremen victorious at home to Schalke's Ruhr Valley rivals Dortmund, Bayern remain four points clear of the second-placed northerners, but Miroslav Klose's first Bundesliga strike in three months has taken the Bavarians 12 points clear of the men in Royal Blue. "That's one down and three to go. We only have to worry about Bremen, Hamburg and Leverkusen now," Hoeneß grinned.

Hoeneß reaches for the superlatives

The three points gleaned in Gelsenkirchen were not the only reason for the psychological boost felt at the club. Hitzfeld and Hoeneß were both impressed by Bayern's confidence in every area of the park, and phases of high-class passing and movement. "There were a couple of truly mouth-watering moves today," the manager said. Keeper Oliver Kahn feels the team so expensively overhauled last summer has definitely gelled: "We’re close to our best right now.“

"We did the right thing a lot of the time," Hitzfeld opined. The coach himself was clearly in the right with his team selection, opting for a potentially unprecedented six changes to the line-up which battled for 120 minutes in the Cup against TSV 1860 in midweek. "We have a strong squad with 20 players pretty much as good as each other, so I have no hesitation about picking any of them," Hitzfeld explained. Without exception, the players who came into the team performed with distinction. "We fought superbly, we played superbly, and we claimed our just reward," argued Marcell Jansen. The Germany international and his team-mates combined to deny Schalke any clear-cut chances worthy of the name. "Bayern were incredibly solid," S04 coach Mirko Slomka acknowledged.

Still not ruthless enough

Inspired by world-class moments from Franck Ribéry and an in-form Bastian Schweinsteiger, Bayern added attacking flair to their unyielding defence, especially in a series of lightning breaks. "The only thing I didn't like was our finishing," Hitzfeld admonished. "That's our only flaw at the moment. We're making plenty of chances in every game, but we're not scoring enough," Hoeneß agreed. Luca Toni and Co failed to convert half a dozen presentable openings in the first half alone.

However, the key figures at the club are not unduly worried. "It's often a question of luck and belief," Hoeneß argued, "but games like today's are real confidence boosters, and the goals follow quickly after that.“ This Saturday's home meeting with Karlsruher SC would be a good place to start.