Bundesliga - Dortmund looking untouchable in title race
League leaders Borussia Dortmund go into the four-week winter break with a record 10 point cushion, well-placed to seal the Bundesliga title next year.
Dortmund, as opposed to Hoffenheim two years ago or Bayer Leverkusen last season, who both saw their winter break advantages evaporate, have several things working in their favour.
With experienced captain Sebastian Kehl, Patrick Owomoyela, Mohamed Zidan and Dede set to return for the new year, Juergen Klopp's young team, whose outfield players regularly have an average age of under 24, will benefit from the injection of experience at just the right time.
Dortmund, who have lost only twice in the league this season and lead with 43 points from 17 games, having won 14 of them, also have no other obligations than the Bundesliga.
Mainz are second on 33 points, level with Leverkusen, while defending champions Bayern Munich are four points behind.
Dortmund's early exits from the German Cup and the Europa League may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for a team who are bidding for their first domestic league title since 2002 and are not used to the demands of multiple competitions.
"From the beginning of January we will start preparations for the second part," said club manager Michael Zorc. "After all we only have the Bundesliga left now and I hope we can pick up where we left off because in most games we played some sensational football."
With the league's best attack and defence, Dortmund have set a very high standard for their title rivals.
Their impressive form also led to Germany coach Joachim Loew selecting youngsters Marcel Schmelzer and Mario Goetze and recalling midfielder Kevin Grosskreutz and defender Mats Hummels for the national side in November.
"I dare make the prognosis that it will be extremely difficult to overtake Dortmund in the second half. Teams like Leverkusen or Bayern must start a good run to do that," Loew said this week.
While Leverkusen traditionally falter in the second half of the season, Bayern will only become stronger.
The return of Dutch winger Arjen Robben and Germany's Holger Badstuber from injury will strengthen their attack and defence and they are determined to boost their backline further in the winter transfer window.
But even Van Gaal, whose team came from behind in the winter to clinch the title last season, considers a Champions League spot a more realistic target than winning the Bundesliga with Dortmund 14 points ahead.
"Obviously Dortmund are a target but for us the focus will first be on Mainz 05 and Leverkusen, who are only four points away and on the Champions League spots," he said on Wednesday after his team advanced into the German Cup quarter-finals.
The Bavarians face holders Inter Milan in the Champions League first knockout round, further crowding their match schedule.
At the other end of the table, Borussia Moenchengladbach look doomed in last place on just 10 points, having conceded 47 goals and relegation-threatened Stuttgart, two points ahead of them, showing signs of recovery.
With Gladbach coach Michael's Frontzeck's future in doubt, the five-time German champions have little room for mistakes.
"Everyone has written us off already and that is fine by us but there is a whole half of a season still to be played and we will not give up until the very last game," Frontzeck said.