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Jan 25, 2007

Bundesliga: Bayern look to recover from slow start

DUESSELDORF, Germany, Jan 25 (Reuters) - Bayern Munich will be high on confidence even without much-needed reinforcements when they they resume their campaign for a third successive Bundesliga title away to Borussia Dortmund on Friday (1930 GMT).

Bayern finished the first half of the season in third place, three points behind leaders Werder Bremen and second-placed Schalke 04.

It was largely unimpressive stuff from the Bavarians, who lost four league games out of 17 and only rarely played with their habitual command.

Club president Franz Beckenbauer recognised this week that they were crying out for a creative midfielder - a player with the ingenuity of Werder Bremen's Diego or Barcelona's Deco, for example - yet there have been no attempts to strengthen the squad in the transfer window.

In fact, the group will be weaker than last year, following Sebastian Deisler's decision to retire at the age of 27 following knee problems.

Coach Felix Magath will have to be content with keeping hold of Owen Hargreaves as well as some positive injury news as Willy Sagnol and Martin Demichelis are expected to be in the squad for Friday.

Bayern have so far resisted temptation to sell Hargreaves to Manchester United, who newspapers say have offered more than 30 million euros ($39.02 million) for the England midfielder.

His imminent return from a broken leg could be crucial to a team still struggling to make up for the loss of Michael Ballack to Chelsea.

There is reason for optimism before Friday's game, after an encouraging 2-0 win away to Hamburg SV in a friendly at the weekend. Dortmund will also be hit by the loss of injured duo Sebastian Kehl and Christian Woerns.

'We stuttered in the first half of the season but we're aiming high now,' Bayern goalkeeper Oliver Kahn told reporters this week. 'I'm convinced we can finish as champions.'

No one will discount that view, of course, but the signs are that Bayern will face a much tougher fight for the title this time.

At the same stage last season Bayern held a six-point lead at the top of the table and they won a 20th German title with ease.

Leaders Werder look much stronger candidates now. They outscored Bayern by 47 goals to 30 over the first half of the campaign, thanks to the brilliance of midfielder Diego and striker Miroslav Klose.

They begin 2007 with a comfortable looking home game against Hanover 96 on Sunday.

Schalke will be three points clear at the top by the time that match kicks off if they win away to Eintracht Frankfurt on Saturday.

Their main worry going into the weekend concerns captain Marcelo Bordon, who is doubtful with a leg muscle injury. Dario Rodriguez stands by to replace him.