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.
"We've got an agenda and we want to start breathing down the necks of the teams ahead of us," Wolfsburg coach Dieter Hecking said.
De Bruyne's arrival gives Hecking a conundrum, with five players — De Bruyne, Maximilian Arnold, Daniel Caligiuri, Diego and Ivan Perisic — now competing for three places.
Wolfsburg hosts Hannover on Saturday. The visiting side arrives with new coach Tayfun Korkut after firing Mirko Slomka in the winter break. Hannover, which is 13th, also brought in Latvia striker Artjoms Rudnevs from Bundesliga rival Hamburger SV until the end of the season.
The bottom sides, Eintracht Braunschweig and Nuremberg, both have 11 points, but can take heart as four clubs previously survived relegation after being in the same position at the halfway stage since 1995-96. Augsburg managed to survive after claiming just nine points in the first half of the season.
Nuremberg is still waiting for its first win, however, with free-scoring Hoffenheim visiting on Saturday. Braunschweig visits northern rival Werder Bremen on Sunday, with hopes pinned on winter signing Havard Nielsen to improve the promoted side's meagre haul of 10 goals. The 20-year-old Norway striker failed to live up to expectations at previous club Salzburg of Austria.
Both Hamburger SV and Schalke are hoping their fortunes change for the better in 2014. Champions League participation is Schalke's target — the Gelsenkirchen-based club faces Real Madrid in this year's round of 16 — while Hamburg's ambitions have dwindled to avoiding a relegation fight. Hamburg, which was initially targeting the European qualification places, is just two points above Freiburg in the relegation play-off place.
Hamburg coach Bert van Marwijk is missing goalkeeper Rene Adler (ankle injury), attacking midfielder Maximilian Beister (cruciate ligament) and midfielder Tomas Rincon (suspension), while Marcel Jansen is doubtful with flu.
Schalke also has injury problems, with Julian Draxler (thigh) and Jan Kirchhoff (ankle) definitely out and a host of other players doubtful.
The sides clash in Hamburg on Sunday.