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By ESPN Staff

Champions League race hots up

The race for a place in the Champions League next season and the battle to avoid relegation begins in earnest this weekend with the four sides who have shared the title between them over the last eight years - Bayern Munich, Werder Bremen, Stuttgart and Wolfsburg - all knowing they cannot afford to slip up anymore.

Bayern were knocked out of this season's Champions League by Inter Milan on Tuesday and must now channel all of their efforts on finishing inside the top three in the Bundesliga after seeing their last hopes of winning some silverware this season evaporate.

Since the final of Europe's elite club competition will be staged in Munich's Allianz Arena in 2012, failure to be part of the starting field is something nobody at the club would even like to contemplate.

"To play in the Champions League is amazing and it is our biggest aim to be involved again next season," striker Mario Gomez said.

Arjen Robben even hinted that he would not stick around if he cannot play in the Champions League next season.

However, to ensure Bayern do not play in the Europa League for the second time in four years, they have a lot of catching up to do over the remaining eight games of the season, starting with a tricky trip to Freiburg this weekend.

Bayern are currently two points behind third-placed Hannover and at least a berth in the final qualifying round of the Champions League, whereas direct entry into next season's group stage is currently seven points away.

Hannover host Hoffenheim on Saturday while Leverkusen, who are currently second, host Schalke on Sunday.

However, Bayern must also look over their shoulder and ensure they remain in the top five. Mainz are just two points adrift in fifth and they travel to the league leaders Borussia Dortmund on Saturday evening, while Bavarian rivals Nurnberg are just three points away in sixth, and they host struggling Werder Bremen.

Bremen are one of nine clubs still involved in a relegation battle which could be made even more intriguing on Friday night when Borussia Monchengladbach host Kaiserslautern.

A win for the Foals would reduce the arrears on tenth-placed Schalke to seven points, with the 2007 champions Stuttgart and 2009 Bundesliga winners Wolfsburg also in danger together with 2004 champions Bremen.

Stuttgart and Wolfsburg meet on Sunday in the final Bundesliga fixture this weekend, and it is a crucial one for both clubs. Elsewhere, Hamburg host Cologne and Eintracht Frankfurt will look for their first win of 2011 against St Pauli.


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