The new Bundesliga season kicks off tonight, as reigning champions Borussia Dortmund take on Hamburger SV. Jürgen Klopp’s young team, boasting some of the country’s finest young talents, thrilled audiences with some electrifying displays full of fluidity and organisation. But Germany’s dominant club Bayern München will come back strong this season. Throw German football’s nearly men Bayer Leverkusen into the mix (again), and this is set up to be one of European football’s most exciting title battles of this season. Due to UEFA co-efficient rankings, four clubs will enter the Champions League stages for next season.
The title challengers
Seeing Nuri Sahin, the standout player in a line-up of considerable talent, leave for Real Madrid will have hurt champions Dortmund, but, encouragingly, the title-winning team has largely been retained. Their excellent back five, containing the particularly impressive Mats Hummels and Marcel Schmelzer, is the best in the league. But another huge blow to Dortmund is the loss of striker Lucas Barrios for the first six weeks of the season. Robert Lewandowski will be required to step in up front, a necessity which exposes the lack of depth in the squad compared to a side like Bayern. This factor could be crucial over the season, but if the club’s most important players, particularly Mario Götze and Shinji Kagawa and Sven Bender, can perform consistently, both attack and defence will good enough to propel Dortmund to a serious defence of their title.
But the championship favourites are undoubtedly Bayern München. The notoriously proud Bavarian club will be sure not to miss out on the title for two years running, and new recruits in the coaching and defensive departments indicate Bayern have by far the strongest team. Under new (old) coach Jupp Heynckes, Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng and Rafinha have been brought in to the defence at a total reported cost of in excess of €40m. A shaky back-five was Bayern’s main problem last season, and they look a solid unit this time round if Boateng, the likely central-defensive partner for Daniel van Buyten, can grow into the role. Going forward, Die Roten have arguably one of the best attacking units in Europe, with Arjen Robben and Thomas Müller two world-class players alongside Franck Ribery and the supremely confident Mario Gomez, and Bastian Schweinsteiger pulling the strings from deep. The squad also boasts significant depth, with the great talents of Toni Kroos and David Alaba pushing for first-team spots too. As brilliant as Dortmund were last season, the only thing stopping Bayern from the title this time round is their own tendency for complacency.
Jupp Heynckes’ former club, and last season’s runners-up, Bayer Leverkusen, should also provide a title challenge this season. They have made possibly the signing of the summer in the explosive 20-year-old attacker André Schürrle, for around €8 million from Mainz. Losing Chilean Arturo Vidal to Juventus, one of the Bundesliga’s best players of last season, will be a blow, but there is plenty of depth to cover his absence. Lars Bender is ready to make the step-up, a player we will be hearing more of this season, in central midfield alongside Simon Rolfes and Michael Ballack. And with the talents of Schürrle, Stefan Kiessling, Sidney Sam, Renato Augusto and Eren Derdiyok competing for places further up the pitch, there is no reason why the eternal nearly-men of German football (with five second-place finishes in the past fifteen years, and no Bundesliga title yet to their name) will not be in the mix again come next May.
And the rest?
Top four potential
Last season: 14th
Key player: Benedikt Höwedes
One to watch: Lewis Holtby
If there’s any team who could challenge the top three this season, it’s Schalke, despite their awful league campaign last year. Although filling Manuel Neuer’s boots will not be easy, the team looks extremely strong. Lewis Holtby returns from an excellent loan spell with Mainz, and will play a key role this term, while Schalke have also poached full-back Christian Fuchs, another important member of Mainz’s impressive team last season. With new captain Benedikt Höwedes, and array of talent at the club, it’s difficult not to see them returning to the right end of the division.
Last season: 4th
Key player: Didier Ya Konan
One to watch: Konstantin Rausch
Hannover find themselves in a rare position for surprise-package clubs in that they have kept their best players (see Mainz, below). Cherundolo and Ya Konan had excellent seasons, almost propelling Hannover into a Champions League playoff. Left-back Christian Pander joins from Schalke, as Hannover look to build a strong Bundesliga outfit. With confidence and continuity at the club, they have every chance of competing for Europe again.
Last season: 12th
Key player: Julian Schieber
Stuttgart’s awesome second half of last season will give their fans plenty of optimism going into the new campaign. They picked up as many points as Borussia Dortmund over the final 14 games of the season, and were only bettered by Bayer Leverkusen in the entire division. Striker Ciprian Marica has left for Schalke, but young Julian Schieber looks ready to step up in the Stuttgart attack.
The traditional powerhouses
Last season: 15th
Key player: Mario Mandzukic
For the champions of two seasons ago, the post-celebratory hangover has lasted a lot longer than Wolfsburg will have hoped. Guilty of spending too big and letting player egos take control of the club, something Steve McClaren made a terminal error in not resolving during his short spell in charge, returning coach Felix Magath has restored some stability to the club. Even with rumours of a big-money move for the deadly Freiburg marksman Papiss Cissé, Wolfsburg will struggle to break back into the elite this season.
Last season: 8th
Key player: Dennis Aogo
One to watch: Son-Heung Min, Jeffrey Bruma
It’s probably looking like a season of transition and stagnation for the club without a top three finish in five years. With no fewer than thirteen departures at the club, including Malaga-bound Dutch duo Ruud van Nistelrooy and Joris Mathijsen and important midfielders Zé Roberto and Piotr Trochowski, HSV are turning to youth with new sporting director Frank Arnesen, Chelsea youth, to be more specific. Michael Mancienne and Jeffrey Bruma have been brought in, the latter on loan, to bolster the side’s leaky defence. Also worth looking out for will be South Korean teenager Son-Heung Min, an attacker with plenty of promise.
Last season: 13th
Key player: Marko Marin
One to watch: Mehmet Ekici
This time last season, Bremen were about to enter a season of Champions’ League football. This year could look very different for them. Then, the loss of Mesut Özil, and a number of injuries, affected the team badly. With the supremely talented Marko Marin tipped to leave this season, Bremen are looking short on quality. They defended woefully at times last term, and have looked to remedy that with some new signings, but they are in serious danger of struggling near the bottom.
The unpredictable teams
FSV Mainz 05
Last season: 5th
Key player: Sami Allagui
One to watch: Anthony Ujah
Mainz produced some beautiful football last season and won many new admirers. But the loss of their star players André Schürrle, Lewis Holtby and Christian Fuchs is sure to hit them hard. Replacements have been drafted in, including record signing Anthony Ujah, who will hopefully give Mainz’s new Coface Stadion a similar standard of football to last season. A question-mark remains over Mainz, who have already been knocked out of the Europa League, but at the club where groundbreaking tactical and mental coaching is being implemented, they have the talent to cope reasonably well with the key departures.
Last season: 7th
Key player: Christian Tiffert
One to watch: Itay Shechter
After an astonishing run of form over the second half of the season, promoted side Kaiserslautern brushed off the relegation fears they might have had at Christmas to finish 7th. Christian Tiffert topped the Bundesliga’s assist charts last season, and if he, and Kaiserslautern’s other surprise stars, can have a similar impact this term, this unlikely success story might continue.
Last season: 16th (relegation playoff)
Key player: Marco Reus
One to watch: Marc-Andre ter Stegen
Back in Febuary, Mönchengladbach had looked doomed to relegation. But new coach Lucien Favre guided them to a miraculous escape, which included back-to-back wins over champions Dortmund and fourth-placed Hannover right at the end of the season. This time round, they will be looking for a far more stress-free season, and the mood around the club suggests they might just get it. Marco Reus is an excellent player, Juan Arango returns after a fine Copa America, and the rest of the squad, strengthened over the summer, are in confident spirits. They should be fine.
1. FC Nürnberg
Last season: 6th
Key player: Per Nilsson
One to watch: Robert Mak
One of many surprise packages last season, Nürnberg reached sixth position. But chances of them repeating that feat seem slim, with the club’s best a target for poachers over the summer. Ilkay Gündogan has been given the task of filling the large Nuri Sahin-shaped hole in the Dortmund midfield, while goalscorer Julian Schieber has returned to Stuttgart and talented playmaker Mehmet Ekici has joined Werder Bremen. Their exact fate will be difficult to forecast, given it might rest on the performances of their young talents, notably Robert Mak.
1. FC Köln
Last season: 10th
Key player: Lukas Podolski
One to watch: Christian Clemens
New coach Stale Solbakken has chosen to pass the captaincy from Lukas Podolski on to Brazilian defender Pedro Geromel. Hopefully this will not cause too much tension within the team, who have added the talented Sascha Riether to their ranks. 10th was a very respectable finish from them last season, and if they can remedy their woeful defence from last campaign, it could get even better for them.
The likely strugglers
Last season: Promoted
Key player: Uwe Möhrle
One to watch: Lorenzo Davids (yes, Edgar’s cousin)
Promoted club Augsburg are celebrating their first ever season in the top flight of German football. Although they will be keen to show they aren’t here to make up the numbers, their modestly-assembled squad looks, at first glance, out of its depth. The loss of effective loanee Moritz Leitner, tipped for big things with parent club Dortmund, will also affect their chances. The ties against neighbours Bayern München will certainly be ones to savour, and one hopes that Augsburg fans enjoy their time at the top while they can.
Last season: Promoted
Key player: Adrian Ramos
One to watch: Pierre-Michel Lassoga
A season of struggle is also expected at the other promoted club Hertha Berlin with the premier club from Germany’s capital back in the Bundesliga, . Free-scorers in the 2. Bundesliga last season, the success of their attackers at a higher level will go a long way in determining their fate. In particular, teenage sensation from the last campaign Pierre-Michel Lassoga, who grabbed 13 goals, will need to adjust to life in the Bundesliga. Coach Markus Babbel has gathered his squad frugally and will hope to guide them to survival.
Last season: 9th
Key player: Papiss Cissé
Record signing Garra Dembélé, who had an excellent season with Levski Sofia last year will look to fill the void up front if Papiss Cissé, one of the Bundesliga’s standout players from last season, is sold. There is plenty of experience in the Freiburg set-up, which will hopefully guide the club away from a relegation battle, but the loss of talented head coach Robin Dutt to Bayer Leverkusen will be a big worry for them.
Last season: 11th
Key player: Ryan Babel
A possible struggle could be ahead for the erstwhile minnows who have done an excellent job in consolidating their position in the Bundesliga over the past few years, having spent a lot of money to do so. But the only noteworthy signing this summer has been 22-year-old Wolfsburg fringe player Sven Schipplock. Excellent prospect David Alaba has returned to parent club Bayern München, meaning the team may lack a bit of spark this season, something they will be relying on from former Liverpool winger Ryan Babel.