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Bayern looks to bounce back as virus impact recedes

Suddenly, it's business as usual again for Bayern Munich — maybe.

After a wave of coronavirus cases left the defending champions with a depleted squad for last week's 2-1 loss to Borussia Mönchengladbach, Bayern coach Julian Nagelsmann is looking to get back on track against Cologne on Saturday.

Second-place Borussia Dortmund can at least temporarily cut Bayern's lead to three points when it hosts Freiburg on Friday, much closer than the nine-point lead the Munich club had over the winter break.

Dortmund's Erling Haaland, left, reacts during the German Bundesliga soccer match between Eintracht Frankfurt and Borussia Dortmund in Frankfurt, Germany, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. Dortmund defeated Frankfurt by 3-2. (AP PhotoMichael Probst)

Almost all Bundesliga clubs were hit by the virus when players returned from vacation, but Bayern more than most. Captain Manuel Neuer headed a long list of absentees who recorded positive tests, leaving Nagelsmann to start with midfielder Marcel Sabitzer at left back, 19-year-old German-American Malik Tillman on the left wing and a bench of reserve and youth players.

It also didn't help that Gladbach is a tricky opponent for Bayern, having beaten the champions at least once in each of the last five seasons and having handed out a historic 5-0 rout in the German Cup in October.

Historically, Cologne should be much easier to beat. Bayern has won its last eight league games against Cologne and is unbeaten in 15, its best records against any of the current Bundesliga teams.

Freiburg's Janik Haberer (2nd from left) celebrates with the team after scoring the opening goal during the Bundesliga soccer match between SC Freiburg and Arminia Bielefeld in Freiburg, Germany, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. (Tom Wellerdpa via AP)

Nagelsmann will have far more tactical options after Neuer, Leroy Sané and Alphonso Davies were among six players to return to training Wednesday following time in isolation. Transfer rumors around forward Kingsley Coman were ended when he signed a contract extension through 2027 on Wednesday.

It seems as if the latest wave of the virus, driven by the omicron variant, hit the Bundesliga slightly before the rest of German society and may already be receding. There have been far fewer new cases this week of players testing positive than the week before and, like Bayern, numerous clubs have seen players return to training.

One of the teams still not at full strength is Freiburg, a surprise contender for the top four which will head to Dortmund on Friday without three players who had positive tests. They include defender Nico Schlotterbeck, who played in all 17 league games before testing positive last week. Freiburg coach Christian Streich said he is out of isolation but has barely trained with his teammates and needs time to build up his fitness.

Wolfsburg's head coach Florian Kohfeldt, right, talks to his players Sebastiaan Bornauw, center, and Wolfsburg's Josuha Guilavogui after a German Bundesliga soccer match between Bayern Munich and VfL Wolfsburg at the Allianz Arena in Munich, Germany, Friday, Dec. 17, 2021. (AP PhotoAndreas Schaad)

Dortmund is hoping for a calmer, more assured performance than its hectic 3-2 comeback win over Eintracht Frankfurt last week, sealed by an 89th-minute goal from Mahmoud Dahoud.

The other surprise contender for Champions League qualification, third-place Hoffenheim, is at Union Berlin on Saturday. Coach Domenico Tedesco has had a mixed start to life at Leipzig but can cement the team in the top half of the standings with a win over relegation-threatened Stuttgart the same day.

Wolfsburg played in the Champions League this season but is in 14th place and in disarray as it prepares to host Hertha Berlin on Saturday.

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