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Mar 7, 2012

Dortmund tighten their title grip

And just like that a title race that had been blown wide open only a few weeks ago looks almost slammed shut. Over the past weekend, no less than three of the top four suffered unexpected defeats away from home while table-topping Borussia Dortmund beat FSV Mainz 2-1, despite Mohamed Zidan (whom we featured last week) extending his spooky streak by scoring his fifth goal in as many games since rejoining Mainz.

Title-holders Dortmund have thus managed to put considerable daylight between themselves and the pack. They now lead Bayern Munich by seven points, having trailed them by three as late as January, and Borussia Monchengladbach by eight. As we already pointed out last week, Schalke 04 are for all practical purposes out of the race for good, eleven points behind Dortmund.

How did that happen so quickly? Naturally, runs played a role. Dortmund have now won every game since the end of the winter break, which is a new Bundesliga record. The team is plainly in terrific form, as very few of those wins were lucky. The winner against Mainz came relatively late, but it was well-deserved. It also came only three minutes after the visitors had tied the game, which highlights the fact that Dortmund seem to be able to step up a gear whenever they need to.

Bayern, meanwhile, have won only one game on away soil in all competitions since mid-December - and that was in the German cup. "This defeat hurts a lot," Philipp Lahm said after the 2-0 defeat in Leverkusen on Saturday. "It's not going well, especially away from home, where we're continually dropping points." What's more, Bayern are now also dropping points when they are actually playing quite well. For one hour, the team were firmly in the driver's seat against Leverkusen, but just couldn't get the ball across the line - not even when a fine move resulted in Mario Gomez rounding the keeper and having an empty goal in front of him. (Centre-back Manuel Friedrich blocked the shot with a desperate lunge.)

One explanation you often hear for Bayern's problems, particularly away from home, is that the Munich giants are missing Bastian Schweinsteiger more than they let on. A similar affliction may have befallen Gladbach, who have lost their pizzazz since the 38th minute of the game in Kaiserslautern two-and-a-half weeks ago. That was when 21-year-old midfielder Patrick Herrmann had to come off with a broken collarbone.

"Patrick was one of the best offensive players in the league after the end of the winter break," coach Lucien Favre said, though he added: "But in the first half of the season we proved that we can play good football without him." It's true that the youngster was only a sub until October, when striker Igor de Camargo suffered a serious injury and Favre had to reshuffle his line-up, yet the team's offence seems to be lacking an element of surprise in his absence and looks pedestrian at the moment.

The same has been true all season long of Kaiserslautern's attack. At the weekend, the team sank into last place after a drab scoreless draw at home against Wolfsburg, who are the league's worst team away from home. It's not difficult to see where Kaiserslautern's problems lie: they have conceded as many goals as Schalke and Hannover 96, but they have scored only 16. Unsurprisingly, this meagre return has been good for just three wins so far.

Chairman Stefan Kuntz, who joined the club when it was on the brink of the third division, in April 2008, and manager Marco Kurz, who was signed a year later, have worked wonders on a limited budget in the past years, culminating in a stunning seventh-place finish last season. But the knack of finding the right men in the transfer market and the right words in the dressing room seem to have deserted them. For the time being, Kuntz is still backing his coach Kurz, but the pressure on the duo is mounting.

As if the footballing situation wasn't bad enough, Kaiserslautern also have an entirely different problem. Twelve days ago, anti-Semitic taunts were directed at Itay Schechter, the club's Israeli player, during a training session. The club are still looking for the perpetrator, but - as Kuntz said on Saturday - "such people don't have the guts to step forth and either say they're sorry or stand by their actions". This is a man you wouldn't want to swap jobs with at the moment.

An unpleasant scene, though of an entirely different nature, it is also overshadowing the football at Hamburg. On Saturday, the team suffered an unexpectedly severe setback when they were beaten 4-0 at home by Stuttgart. The main talking point, however, was striker Paolo Guerrero's nasty tackle from behind against Stuttgart's goalkeeper Sven Ulreich on 54 minutes. Guerrero was rightfully sent off for a foul that could have easily ended Ulreich's season.

In the following days, there was considerable public uproar and many columnists demanded Guerrero had to be severely penalised. Since the foul was a lot more spectacular than Jermaine Jones's malicious stepping on Marco Reus's injured foot in December, it was replayed countless times on television.

On Tuesday, the German FA suspended Guerrero for eight games. It was the fourth-harshest penalty in league history. Dortmund's Timo Konietzka was suspended for six months in 1966 for physically attacking the referee, a record that seems safe, considering the next longest suspension was the 14 weeks Schalke's Erwin Kremers was slapped with for insulting a referee in 1974. (What may look like a mild penalty as most of those weeks fell into the off-season actually cost Kremers the World Cup.)

"I think the penalty is too harsh," said Hamburg's coach Thorsten Fink, "but we have to live with it." All of a sudden, Hamburg could be back in the relegation fight, as they will now be without a key player for a long time and have a tricky away game at Schalke coming up. Whether or not the club's fans have to worry will probably be decided in March, when Hamburg play Freiburg, Wolfsburg and Kaiserslautern in a row.

A similar thing should hold true for the title race. While Dortmund have opened up a solid lead for the time being, things will probably come down to ten days in April, when the team meets Bayer; then rivals Schalke; then Gladbach.

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