Hoffenheim 'winter champions' after draw

BERLIN - Bundesliga newcomers Hoffenheim were crowned surprise German "winter champions" on Sunday after drawing 1-1 at home against nine-man Schalke 04 in the final match before the league's mid-season break. Sunday's point was enough to send Ralf Rangnick's side back above champions Bayern Munich on goal difference, following Bayern's 2-2 draw in Stuttgart on Saturday. Hoffenheim, who were playing in Germany's third division two years ago, are the first ever Bundesliga debutants to lead at the league's halfway point and only the second promoted team to do so. Playing for the last time at Mannheim's Carl Benz stadium before they move to their new home next month, Hoffenheim trailed five minutes before the break after Schalke's Gerald Asamoah finished off a neat through ball from strike partner Halil Altintop. With just over half an hour remaining, however, the dismissal of Schalke midfielder Jermaine Jones for a second yellow card proved decisive. Following some resolute defending by the visitors, Hoffenheim's Selim Teber came up with a 72nd-minute equaliser, curling a fine free kick past outstretched Schalke keeper Manuel Neuer from around 22 metres. Another Schalke red card, this time following a second booking for Dutch international Orlando Engelaar, saw Hoffenheim lay siege to the away team's goal for the last 10 minutes but without further success. "Of course I'm happy about being in first place, but I'd have been happier with the three points today," said Hoffenheim coach Rolf Rangnick following the draw with the club who sacked him three years ago. "I think we did more than enough to win the match in the end, but I was happy with the spirit the team showed in fighting back from being a goal down. "I was much more unhappy about the last minute defeat to Bayern Munich last week, so I can live with today's result."