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May 1, 2006

Bayern Munich out to clinch Bundesliga title

BERLIN, May 1 (Reuters) - Bayern Munich could clinch their 20th German championship at home against VfB Stuttgart on Wednesday even though their playmaker Michael Ballack will be on the bench sitting out a suspension.

Four days after taking their 13th German Cup by beating Eintracht Frankfurt and with three Bundesliga matches left, the Bavarians host Stuttgart with a five-point lead and could become the first team to successfully defend a German double.

If Hamburg SV fail to win at Cologne on Tuesday and Bayern win three points, Felix Magath's men will enter the record books as the first club to win the Cup and championship back-to-back - some consolation for their early Champions League ouster.

'Defending the double is a unique accomplishment and hugely motivating for us,' said Ballack after Saturday's 1-0 victory over Frankfurt in Berlin, perhaps one of his last matches before his expected departure at the end of the season to Chelsea.

The Germany captain laughed off criticism from Bayern president Franz Beckenbauer, who said he only 'trotted around on the pitch and should have been replaced'. Beckenbauer accused him of 'coasting and saving his energy for Chelsea' for months.

'What should I say to that? I really don't care,' said Ballack, who will miss the Stuttgart match after picking up a 10th yellow card in last Sunday's Bundesliga 2-2 draw against Mainz. 'We won the cup even if it wasn't our best match.'

Bayern, who have just three wins in their last eight matches and only 19 points from their last 12 league games, are cruising towards their sixth title in eight years while Hamburg have been succumbing to nerves.

'They're all just not doing enough,' said an angry Beckenbauer after the uninspiring cup victory. 'One of the guys has the ball and the others just stand around watching and wishing him all the best. That's the state of the team now.'

HSV, who have 65 points and are the only team to beat Bayern twice this season, could have moved closer last week but lost 2-0 at home to fifth-placed Bayer Leverkusen -- their third defeat in their last five Hamburg matches.

HSV wasted two other opportunities earlier in the season to catch Bayern, who lead with 70 points and would have to lose two of their last three matches for Hamburg to have any chance.

HSV are now more concerned about holding second place and a direct qualification to the Champions League in front of Bremen, who are third with 61 points and play at Duisburg on Wednesday.

The battle to escape the last two relegation spots could become clearer this week with two head-to-head matches. Duisburg are in 18th and almost assured of relegation with 23 points.

Cologne are still hoping to stay up, in 17th on 27 points and Kaiserslautern are 16th with 30. Mainz are just above the drop zone in 15th place at 31 points while Wolfsburg are 14th with 33 and Frankfurt are 13th on 34.

On Wednesday, Frankfurt host Kaiserslautern while Mainz travel to Wolfsburg.