Bayern fired up for Schalke showdown
Verbal sparring is part and parcel of the build-up to a major football match, and the weekend meeting between champions Bayern and Bundesliga leaders Schalke 04 has proved no exception. "Bayern's era of dominance is over," Schalke hitman Kevin Kuranyi trumpeted three days before the match. "My players are desperate to prove who's the best team in the Bundesliga," Munich boss Ottmar Hitzfeld promptly fired back. The side in fourth host the front-runners at the Allianz Arena this Saturday afternoon (Live in English from 3:15 pm on FCB.tv Web Radio).
The media broadsides are a sure sign of pressure on both clubs. Schalke could take a giant stride towards a first German championship in 49 years by beating the title holders, but defeat could see the Royal Blues knocked off top spot by Werder Bremen.
Focused on third
"For us, there are three crucial points at stake," Hitzfeld analysed. The Bavarians' declared aim is a Champions League qualifying finish, but flickering hopes of retaining the title would be rekindled in the event of victory, although the subject is currently taboo in Munich. "It's all about third place - honestly," Uli Hoeneß insisted.
The champions may have the psychological edge ahead of what Phillipp Lahm described as a "pivotal" game. "We know best how to cope with the pressure," the Germany international reckoned. By contrast, Schalke had wobbled of late, Hitzfeld reasoned: "Leading the league generates extraordinary pressures, and we've seen that in Schalke's recent matches."
Nevertheless, no-one in Munich is playing down the threat posed by Saturday's visitors. The Royal Blues threatened to blow the Reds away in the first half-hour when the sides drew 2-2 in Gelsenkirchen last autumn, Mark van Bommel recalled, but the Bavarians are aiming to turn the tables this time. "We'll get stuck in from the start," Bastian Schweinsteiger promised. Added Hitzfeld: "Our task is to prise open Schalke's packed defence as early as possible."
"That means we have to be even more determined and even more focused," the coach continued. "You don't get many chances against Schalke, so I'm expecting a war of attrition. But we're capable of beating any team on the planet at home."
Dress rehearsal for Milan
Consciously or not, Bayern will be looking for a confidence-boosting win ahead of the Champions League quarter-final first leg away to AC Milan just three days after the Bundesliga clash. All thoughts of the European encounter are currently banned in Munich. "We're concentrating exclusively on Schalke. We're not interested in anything else at the moment," Hitzfeld confirmed.
The General picks from a full squad on Saturday. Oliver Kahn and Mark van Bommel will play despite bans applying to the Milan trip. For Schalke, playmaker Lincoln is still suspended for a red card offence, while Gustavo Varela (knee surgery) is not yet fit. On the other hand, Danish striker Peter Lovenkrands has shaken off an ankle ligament problem and could return from a five-week lay-off.
Royal Blues boss Mirko Slomka exuded confidence ahead of the game. "I've noticed a few gaps in the Bayern midfield. We'll come away with something," he declared. "We'll see who has the biggest gaps on Saturday," Hitzfeld fired back. Bayern are even taking the torrent of statements from Gelsenkirchen as a compliment. "If they're talking about us, it means they're scared of us," Van Bommel smiled.
Bayern Munich: Kahn - Sagnol, Lucio, Van Buyten, Lahm - Salihamidzic, Hargreaves, Van Bommel, Schweinsteiger - Makaay, Podolski
Schalke 04: Neuer - Rafinha, Bordon, Krstajic, Pander - Ernst - Bajramovic, Kobiaschwili - Halil Altintop, Kuranyi, Lövenkrands
Referee: Herbert Fandel (Kyllburg)
Bayern's record in the fixture: P36 W26 D5 L5 F97 A32