Bundesliga Kick-off: Winter changes and what to expect

by Jonathan Lines

The wait is finally over. The division has been dormant for five weeks, the table static. Meanwhile, the continent’s other major leagues are already back into the swing of things after their Christmas breaks, and Real Madrid and Barcelona have already resumed their rivalry. The 2nd tier of the German league doesn’t restart until for another two weeks still. This hasn’t felt like a winter break, more a hibernation. This weekend, though, the Bundesliga is back.

Despite the long break, clubs have been busy with their preparations for the second half of the campaign. Players and coaches have come and gone, friendlies have been played both at home and abroad (Bayern Munich, for instance, headed for India last week). Ahead of the first match of the Rückrunde [second-leg, if you will], an enticing encounter between high-flying Borussia Mönchengladbach and leaders Bayern on Friday, here’s a run-down of the most important winter-break activity.

Marco Reus transfer

Without doubt, the biggest news of the winter break, and of the German transfer window, has been that champions Borussia Dortmund are to sign Mönchengladbach’s superstar forward Marco Reus next season. Named by the dependable Bundesliga Fanatic as the Best Player of the Hinrunde [first-leg], Reus’ performances this season have been outstanding, enough to convince his hometown club to spend around €16 million on his services.

This signing represents a clear signal of intent on the part of the Black-Yellows that they are ready to compete long-term with Bayern Munich at the head of the Bundesliga table, not least because they beat Bayern to his signature. The only challenges to Bayern’s dominance this century have come from sides who have only been able to compete with them for a season, before relinquishing to Germany’s richest club’s power. Sides like Stuttgart (06/07 champions) and Wolfsburg (08/09) put up a fight, but Bayern have not gone two years without the title since 1995/96 (they were twice denied by Dortmund then as well).

Bayern are fairly unused to not getting what they want in situations like this, especially when it comes to young, home players. This aspect of the transfer, and the transfer itself, is emblematic of the strengthening feeling that Dortmund are well-positioned to become a long-term rival to Bayern. It’s been years since the German league has seen a title rivalry like this one can potentially offer.

Reus, 22, has been the talisman of his side’s incredible progress over the last year, but it’s important to remember that others have excelled around him too. Unfortunately for Mönchengladbach, another of their best performers, the talented 23 year-old midfielder Roman Neustädter, will also leave the club in the summer, agreeing to join title-chasing Schalke 04.

Other transfer news and Felix Magath’s spending

In something of a Bundesliga tradition these days, Felix Magath’s VfL Wolfsburg were the most active team in the transfer market during the break. Eight players joined the club, and Magath has spent a lot of money in the process. Swiss teenager Ricardo Rodriguez arrives from FC Zürich for around €7.5 million, along with Portugese striker Vieirinha for a reported €4 million as the two highest-profile acquisitions. In comparison with the rest of the league, these are no small sums and the pressure will be on Magath, now a year into his current spell at the helm, to deliver a better finish than their current spot of 12th given these changes.

Apart from Reus and Wolfsburg, and, of course, Papiss Cissé’s move from SC Freiburg to Newcastle United, there’s little other major transfer news. Freiburg and Kaiserslautern, two sides bracing themselves for a relegation battle over the second half of the season, have been busy, with Kaiserslautern recruiting Werder Bremen striker Sandro Wagner and Bayer Leverkusen’s young attacker Nicolai Jörgensen, both on loan. Leverkusen have also allowed defender/midfielder Hanno Balitsch to leave for Nürnberg, while Freiburg have signed forward Sebastian Freis and Danish defender Michael Lumb, and Alexander Ring joins Borussia Mönchengladbach.

Managerial changes

With no fixtures for five weeks, December seems the ideal period for a club to find a new coach if the current one has not delivered. But performance was not part of the equation in the highest-profile of two managerial casualties over the festive period. Indeed, Hertha BSC coach Markus Babbel guided the promoted club to 11th after the first 17 games, but had his contract terminated in unusual circumstance after their last game of the Hinrunde. A feud between Babbel and sporting director Michael Preetz entered the public arena, as Babbel announced he would not be extending his contract beyond the end of the season. Preetz’s response was to relieve Babbel of his duties immediately and replace him with former Dortmund and Leverkusen coach Michael Skibbe.

Bottom club SC Freiburg also hired a new coach after a disappointing six months in charge for Marcus Sorg. Assistant boss Christian Streich has been handed the task of trying to avoid relegation.

As with the transfers, it’s been quieter than it might have been in terms of managerial departures. Robin Dutt, for instance, has possibly been fortunate to keep his post at Leverkusen, with the club in sixth place having held early-season hopes of a title challenge. “Dutt has our complete trust”, his boss Rudi Völler told Express in December, despite continued rumours of dressing room unrest and Leverkusen’s relatively poor Hinrunde under the leadership of their coach.

Title race

Due to some late indifferent form on the part of the league’s leaders Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund are in a position to make this a close title race, having shown superb form of their own at the end of last year, including a win at the Allianz Arena in November.

While those two look set to lock horns in potentially one of the most interesting title battles in the last few seasons, it also be fascinating to see if 3rd-placed Schalke can maintain a title challenge of their own. They have progressed very nicely under new coach, especially given the sudden circumstances in which previous coach Ralf Rangnick left.

Relegation battle

FC Augsburg and SC Freiburg go into the Rückrunde occupying the relegation places, and are also probably the two favourites for automatic relegation at this stage. Augsburg have delivered some respectable results, including a win over Mönchengladbach and at Mainz, but face a tough battle to stay up. A positive for them is that goalkeeper Simon Jentzsch and midfielder Axel Bellinghausen played well for them in the Hinrunde, and their continued form will be crucial for Augsburg’s survival chances. As for Freiburg, losing Papiss Cissé is a huge blow to their survival hopes. After a landmark season last year under Robin Dutt’s leadership, they have had a terrible campaign so far. A fresh approach from their new coach and some new players will hopefully help, along with the creative ability of forward Stefan Reisinger and, crucially, more goals from €2 million summer signing Garra Dembélé.

As for the clubs around them, Mainz showed some improved form and better performances as their season progressed, while Hamburger SV have been climbing up the table and look set to steer clear of the relegation battle going into the new year. If Mainz can steer clear too, that would leave, barring a decisive upturn in form, (or, indeed, a downturn in form from a team like the promoted Hertha BSC under new management) Nürnberg and Kaiserslautern scrapping for survival.

In-between

Wolfsburg will be hoping that their winter spending will see them enjoy a more promising second half to the season than their disappointing first. Meanwhile, Hamburg’s excellent progress under Thorsten Fink might be checked by a few injuries, including to key player Gökhan Töre (the former Chelsea youngster has started to flourish at his new club). VfB Stuttgart striker Julian Schieber returns from injury to assist his club’s push for Europe. Their playmaker Martin Harnik was undoubtedly one of the best players of the Hinrunde. The battle for European places is set to be a fierce one.

For any Bundesliga fan the return to action has been a long time coming, and there are some tantalising match-ups immediately on the horizon, including Dortmund’s trip to a rejuvenated Hamburg on Sunday, and an intriguing basement battle between Freiburg and Augsburg on Saturday afternoon. But all eyes will be on Borussia Mönchengladbach vs. Bayern Munich on Friday evening, to see if the hosts’ remarkable success story can continue into 2012, and if Marco Reus can put a dent in the title hopes of the club he turned down.

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