Hamburg SV hot on the heels of Bayern

April 20, 2006

BERLIN, April 20 (Reuters) - Hamburg SV could cut Bayern Munich's lead at the top of the Bundesliga table to just a point on Saturday with a victory at home against Bayer Leverkusen.

Bayern play relegation battlers Mainz a day later, when they will be without defender Valerien Ismael who was suspended on Wednesday for three of the last four matches for elbowing.

Bayern, who have watched a nine-point lead melt to four in the last three weeks, are facing further turmoil surrounding reports that midfielder Michael Ballack will be leaving the defending champions at the end of the season for Chelsea.

Coach Felix Magath is trying to douse speculation that his team are growing nervous as their once-commanding lead disappeared down the home stretch.

He also brushed off fears that the suspension of Ismael, who has been a slalwart in a miserly defence alongside Brazil's Lucio, would cause unresolvable problems.

Magath said Mainz, who are looking over their shoulder in 14th place, have as much pressure as Bayern who are going for their 20th league championship.

'Mainz are fighting to escape relegation and they are the ones who are facing the pressure not to lose,' Magath told Premiere television.

'We've got a four-point lead and could afford to lose or draw - but obviously that's not what we want. We want to win. We've got a much better position (than Hamburg) even if Ismael won't be with us. We're in a good situation.'

With 30 games played, Bayern lead with 69 points to Hamburg's 65. Bayern had taken just 12 points from their previous eight league games before their 2-0 win against Duisburg last week.

Bayern mounted late charges to win two recent Bndesliga titles, overtaking Bayer Leverkusen in 2000 and Schalke 04 in 2001, but are suddenly watching their backs.

'I think they're very much afraid of us,' Hamburg coach Thomas Doll, whose team beat Bayern twice this season, said.

Hamburg have not won the Bundesliga since 1983. Bayern have won 12 of their 19 titles since then.

Hamburg, who narrowed Bayern's lead earlier in the season but then faltered, will first have to figure out a way past red-hot Leverkusen, who have won four straight games and stand fifth and on course for a UEFA Cup slot.