Bayern boosted by Robben return
Bayern Munich begins its chase of leader Borussia Dortmund with a new goalkeeper and a recovered Arjen Robben as probably its biggest asset in the second half of the Bundesliga season.
Bayern trails Dortmund by 14 points and has three other clubs between them but the defending champions are still considered to be the most serious challenger.
"If we win Saturday in Wolfsburg, we can achieve everything," Bayern coach Louis van Gaal said. "Dortmund is far away and our immediate goal is second place. But I still believe we can win the championship."
Dortmund is 10 points clear of Mainz and Bayer Leverkusen and will likely remove one of the threats if it wins its opener Friday in Leverkusen.
Leverkusen beat Dortmund 2-0 in the opening match of the season but Dortmund didn't lose again until the final game before the winter break.
Coach Juergen Klopp's team has played the second-best half of the season in the history of the league and won every away game until that final round loss at Eintracht Frankfurt.
"We have great aims ahead of us," Klopp said, although the coach has sought to prevent his players from discussing Dortmund's chances of winning the title. "That's something you discuss in May."
Dortmund goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller, at 30 one of the senior members of the second youngest squad in the Bundesliga, knows what to expect.
"It's going to get more difficult every weekend. Every team is going to try to trip us. Friday's game will be indicative, but not decisive. Nothing will be decided then," Weidenfeller said. "There will be 16 very tough games left to play."
His counterpart in Leverkusen, Rene Adler, thinks the game could be decisive, at least for his team.
"We have to get closer and we have to get three points. We can make the title chase more interesting," said Adler, whose team has won only three home games so far.
Dortmund will be missing Shinji Kagawa, the midfielder who scored eight goals in the first part of the season. Kagawa is with Japan at the Asian Cup in Qatar,
"It's a pity that he is not here," Weidenfeller said. "He was in top form."
Leverkusen coach Jupp Heynckes believes Dortmund will inevitably go through a slump at some point.
"If they don't lose on Friday, it will be a big step toward the title. But I am sure that they won't get through the season unscathed," Heynckes said. "They haven't missed important players until now, they've hardly had major injuries, no slump. That has to come."
Bayern will be waiting just for that.
Robben and Franck Ribery, Bayern's top stars and key players, are finally free of injuries and looked impressive in training during the winter break.
Robben hasn't played a match since the Netherlands' loss in the World Cup final against Spain in July. Van Gaal thinks Robben is still not fit for a full match and is likely to ease the Dutchman into the team.
"After six months on the sidelines, you can't expect to be in top shape immediately. I need some time to reach my level," Robben said Thursday.
Van Gaal confirmed this week that 22-year-old Thomas Kraft will be his new first-choice goalkeeper instead of 36-year-old veteran Hans-Joerg Butt.
Kraft played in two Champions League games after Bayern had already qualified for the next round but is yet to play in the Bundesliga.
"I have great confidence that he will make it. You have to give a player a chance, otherwise you won't know if he can do it or not," Van Gaal said. "If he can't manage it, then Butt will be No. 1 again. But you can't tell after only one game."
Bayern now also has midfielder Luiz Gustavo, signed from Hoffenheim, who excels in defensive duties.
Against Bayern, struggling Wolfsburg begins its life after Edin Dzeko. Steve McClaren's team is languishing in 13th place and still has to invest the millions it earned from sending the striker to Manchester City.
Mainz, one of the surprise teams, will look to stay near the top when it visits next-to-last Stuttgart, which still has to improve significantly under new coach Bruno Labbadia.
Hannover, also a major surprise in fourth place - two points ahead of Bayern - visits Eintracht Frankfurt on Sunday.
In other matches Saturday, Werder Bremen hosts Hoffenheim without coach Ralf Rangnick, who left the club in disagreement with the release of Gustavo to Bayern, Nuremberg hosts last-place Borussia Moenchengladbach, St. Pauli meets Freiburg and Schalke plays Hamburger SV.
On Sunday, Kaiserslautern hosts Cologne.