BERLIN (AP) — The Bundesliga resumes after its month-long winter break with defending champion Bayern Munich in a commanding position at the season's halfway stage.
Pep Guardiola's side is unbeaten, has scored more goals (42) and conceded fewer (8) than any other, has dropped points only twice and leads closest challenger Bayer Leverkusen by seven points — with a game in hand. While Leverkusen, Borussia Moenchengladbach and Borussia Dortmund hope to put the brakes on Bayern's title charge, their immediate concern will be qualifying for the lucrative Champions League. Wolfsburg, Hertha Berlin and Schalke are all close behind. Here are five things to know before the 18th round of games:
WHAT'S LEFT FOR BAYERN?
After claiming five titles in 2013 and going the whole year without defeat in the Bundesliga, Bayern faces the task of improving on their near perfection in 2014. "We won't win the Champions League every season, but it would obviously be wonderful if we were always one of the top four teams," Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said.
Bayern's 41-game unbeaten streak is a Bundesliga record. Steaua Bucharest's European record of 104 league games unbeaten (1986-89) is still some way off, but Arsenal's Premier League record of 49 games (2003-04), and AC Milan's 58-game run in Italy (1991-93) are both within reach. No team has ever completed a Bundesliga season unbeaten.
Bayern starts the year with a difficult trip to Borussia Moenchengladbach on Friday. Third-place Moenchengladbach is unbeaten at home this season.
Borussia Dortmund was supposed to be Bayern's main challenger but a lack of efficiency and costly errors has combined to leave Juergen Klopp's side already 12 points behind Bayern. It could be 15 if Bayern wins its game in hand at Stuttgart on Wednesday. Dortmund's winter training camp in Spain did not go all to plan, with midfielder Nuri Sahin suffering a broken nose and Ilkay Gundogan, who had been out for months with a back problem, sent home with bronchitis. Last Saturday's 6-1 friendly win over third-division Duisburg has restored some optimism.
Fourth-place Dortmund welcomes Augsburg on Saturday. Augsburg was one of the surprise teams of the opening half to the season, with solid performances lifting it to eighth.
RIVALS WARY OF WOLFSBURG
Fifth-place Wolfsburg hopes the attention-grabbing winter capture of Kevin de Bruyne from Chelsea will help the side clinch one of the four Champions League qualification places. Kicker reports that Wolfsburg sealed the deal for 22 million euros ($30 million), making the Belgian attacking midfielder the Bundesliga's most expensive winter transfer.