Munich, January 15 - FC Bayern München will look to shake off the shackles of the lengthy winter break with a tricky trip to 2009 Bundesliga champions Wolfsburg, trained by under-pressure ex-England coach Steve McClaren.
McClaren's worries will not have eased after the Wolves finally sold want-away Bosnian striker Edin Dzeko to big-spending Manchester City. A reported 34 million Euro transfer fee, the largest in Bundesliga history, will ease the pain of losing their top-scoring talisman.
Bayern trail runaway leaders Dortmund by a whopping 17 points (after Borussia's convincing 3-1 away victory at Leverkusen Friday night) and languish in a disappointing fifth spot. The reigning champions cannot afford many more slips if they are to challenge Dortmund, who are strong favourites to capture their first title since 2002. Realistically, Bayern will initially look to chase down Leverkusen and Mainz and seal a Champions League spot. With the 2012 final being staged in Munich, it would be a calamity for the last year's finalists to miss out on qualification.
However, Bayern wouldn't be Bayern without 'talking the title talk'. "If Dortmund falters, we will be there, " warned Director of Football Christian Nerlinger. " We are the best team,'' boasted Philipp Lahm, whilst Dutch coach Louis van Gaal exclaimed, " I want to win everything.''
One of the reasons for the sudden boost in confidence at the 'Arrogance Arena' is winger Arjen Robben's long awaited return to fitness. The 'Flying Dutchman' has been sadly missed since the World Cup in South Africa with the champions lacking a creative spark and goal threat, especially away from home.
van Gaal has confirmed the unproven youngster Thomas Kraft will step in for his Bundesliga debut on Saturday. The 22-year-old goalkeeper has the got the nod ahead of steady veteran Hans-Jörg Butt. This has caused some concern within the current FCB hierarchy, especially after the unhappy experiment with Michael Rensing, who failed to cope with the legacy left by goalkeeping legend Oliver Kahn. Bayern are being strongly linked with a move for Schalke and Germany keeper Manuel Neuer in the summer.
The Bavarians have bolstered their squad with the 15 million Euro signing of versatile Luiz Gustavo (23) from Hoffenheim. The uncapped Brazilian can operate all over midfield and provide valuable cover for a fragile back line. As part of the deal, Austrian full-back David Alaba has joined the Bundesliga's biggest 'village' side on loan until the end of the season. Argentinian defender Martin Demichelis left to link up with lowly La Liga side Malaga.
Bayern's abrasive captain Mark van Bommel is out of contract in the summer and is being chased by a host of Premiership clubs. The double-winners may cash in on the 33-year-old Dutch midfielder in the January transfer window. Despite this potentially unsettling transfer talk, the strong-tackling leader looks set to lead his team out in Northern Germany.
Top scorer Mario Gomez has recovered from injury to challenge German international Miroslav Klose for a starting spot up front. Robben will likely be eased into the action as a substitute after his extended absence since Holland's World Cup Final defeat to Spain.
Some quality R&R (Robben & Ribéry) is urgently needed to finally kick-start the season. Bayern must improve on a somewhat shoddy away record - just two league victories out of eight in this campaign. The Wolfsburg dressing room may be a tighter one after losing Dzeko and the Wolves still possess the quality of Grafite and Diego to make it a far from routine away-day for the Reds.