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By ESPN Staff
Feb 8, 2007

Bundesliga: Schalke determined to retain lead

BERLIN, Feb 8 (Reuters) - It has been almost 50 years since Schalke 04 won the German championship and the new Bundesliga front-runners are determined to defend their three-point lead when they host Hertha Berlin on Saturday.

After Schalke toppled Werder Bremen from top spot with a 2-0 win over their title rivals on Sunday, coach Mirko Slomka said he did not expect a repeat of 2005 when they led the standings in March only to lose out to eventual champions Bayern Munich.

'We have become calmer and more composed since then and this time we can do it,' Slomka told reporters.

'It's a good feeling to be top of the table but it's not going to continue by itself. Hertha will be a stiff test and we have to be as well prepared as we were (against Bremen).'

Schalke, who last won the German championship in 1958 and signed a lucrative sponsorship deal with Russian energy giant Gazprom in October, have recovered from a chaotic start to the season marked by spats between players and coaching staff.

They have won nine of their last 10 matches and could have midfielder and Georgia captain Levan Kobiashvili back for the Hertha match after a foot injury. Danish striker Soeren Larsen is out with a thigh strain.

Second-placed Werder face a difficult match on Saturday at third-placed VfB Stuttgart and may be without joint Bundesliga top scorer Miroslav Klose, who missed Germany's friendly against Switzerland on Wednesday with a thumb injury.

Midfielder Diego sustained a slight injury against Schalke but came on as a substitute for Brazil in their 2-0 defeat by Portugal in a friendly in London on Tuesday and should be fit.

Bayern Munich's new coach Ottmar Hitzfeld will need to put things right after last week's embarrassing 3-0 loss to Nuremberg when the champions face Arminia Bielefeld on Sunday in his second match since replacing Felix Magath.

With Bayern languishing in fourth place, 11 points behind Schalke, and their Champions League clash with Real Madrid looming, sporting director Uli Hoeness says it is time for the team to step up the pace.

'This situation gives us a chance for renewal and we have to dig deeper,' Hoeness told Bayern's website: 'We deserve to be down there (in fourth). We got ourselves into this fix and must get ourselves out of it.'