Football action will be back in Germany as Bundesliga resumes from this Friday, after a hiatus of a little over two months, when defending Champions Dortmund take on a new look Hamburg. As usual, there have been a few transfer stories which sent ripples across Germany as well as the continent. Stalwarts like Şahin, Neuer, Vidal etc have found themselves landing in new set ups. Diego is yet to find out his destination but is in all likelihood to leave Bundesliga, for good. The number of transfers made by top clubs, the early exit from DFB-Pokal’s first round of the likes of Bremen, Wolfsburg and Leverkusen and with four qualifying team to represent Bundesliga in next year’s Champions League – all these can render this season’s title race a fairly healthy certificate, unlike the popular belief that this will be a two-horse race. TheHardTackle takes a look at the probable highlights and twilights of the season.
Deutscher Meister Borussia Dortmund have lost their talisman Şahin to Real Madrid. But the smart businesses viz. Gündoğan, Perišić, Amini (on loan and back to Mariners), by Klopp et al to fill the void of Şahin has once again instilled in the fans of the Black Yellows the belief that Dortmund can mount a serious challenge to Bayern to defend their title. Yes, they have lost the final of DFB Supercup to Schalke on penalty shootout but they won a friendly cup in which teams like Bayern, Mainz and Hamburg participated. New signings Chris Löwe and Perišić has had decent showings and so did iconic whiz kids Kagawa and Götze. Even the way they dispatched Sandhausen in DFB-Pokal’s first round, it only shows that the Supercup final loss was just a blip and Dortmund can definitely be considered as a major threat to Bayern’s Bundesliga prerogatives.
Eternal favorites, Bayern Munich, wouldn’t find much difficulty to find a place in this department. A calamitous last season forecast a busy summer transfer activity and so it was. With the signings of Neuer, Rafinha and Boateng – their Achilles’ heel seemed to have healed, at least on paper. The signing of Usami, Petersen and Jennings as attackers gave Bayern’s reinforcing strategy a more balanced look. The new signings had a decent outing in the pre-season friendlies, assuring the fans of a brighter future.
Contenders for Europa League Qualification
Although the Werkself are yet to win their first ever major domestic title, they might just put a formidable challenge to the favorites, as they always do. Their unceremonious exit from DFB-Pokal against newly promoted Bundesliga 2 outfit Dynamo Dresden can actually work as a positive catalyst to their title hopes as they’ll have less number of games to play than Bayern or Dortmund. The addition of Andre Schürrle is another positive note. The weaknesses are not less either. Departure of creative force Vidal, presence of a not so reliable second goalie at the absence of the injured Adler, lack of quality at the right-back position and the presence of a manager, who will be guiding a team for the first time at the highest level – may work as decelerators to their cause. But if not a title challenge, they will surely be in the contention to make it to the Europa League.
All was not so quiet in the Foals‘ fortune towards the end of last season. After crawling through a dreadful first half, the Foals had their manager sacked in the middle of the season. New coach Lucien Favre had 14 games to turn things around. When the relegation tide was high, the Foals qualified to fight with Bochum for relegation playoff, after winning three of the last four games, which included victories against Dortmund and Hannover. It seems that the belief is back within the side that they can aim to reach further highs. Signing of Wendt from Danish Champions, to partner reliable Nordveidt gives assurance at the back. In the attack the signing of Manchester United’s highly regarded forward Joshua King (on loan) and Japanese winger Yuki Otsu gives them depth and versatility. A lot depends on the fitness and consistency of midfielder maestro Marco Reus as well. If the Foals can continue the momentum in which they finished last season, they could surely become the club to watch out for and who knows, maybe even a Europa League qualification could be a possibility.
After yet another disappointing season, Hamburg went through a complete facelift. Coach Michael Oenning worked out the required transfers with new Sporting Director Frank Arnesen and acted accordingly. They indulged into a transfer frenzy which saw 14 members of the team departing which included established names like Van Nistelrooy, Mathijsen, Rozehnal, Trochowski, Pitroipa, Rost et al. They also welcomed 13 new members, which included four talented young players from Chelsea FC (Mancienne, Sala, Töre, Bruma), thanks to Arnesen’s knowledge about them. They have, however, smartly retained the important core players of the side, like defenders Aogo and Westermann, talented shotstopper Drobny, Elia and Kačar. The team is relatively a young one and has an element of mystery in it. Who knows, the new look Hamburg, with its relative Bundesliga inexperience, might just pip its more experienced competitors!
Carnival Club Mainz turned heads with their scintillating performances at the start of last season and even till the winter break. For a team filled with names unheard of, they played well enough to secure pole position for the first eight weeks, last term. Coach Thomas Tuchel has, though, done well with a shoestring budget and two back to back top ten finishes in Bundesliga speaks highly of his tactical acumen. This time, though, thanks to the combination of the sale of Schürrle to Leverkusen, benefits of Europa League qualification and inauguration of their new and larger home, Coface Arena – Mainz managed to find the likeliest candidates at the right price to bolster the team in the correct departments. Loss of Schürrle and Holtby would, of course, hurt. Even though as many as nine players have been brought in, none of them belonged to the first team of any Bundesliga outfit. So it is still a relatively inexperienced side. But we all know what Tuchel can do with relatively obscure talents.
Race to the Grave
Even though the Berliners were able to win back immediate re-promotion within a season for the first time in their history, they’ll find it tough to reciprocate their heroics in the second tier competition in the Bundesliga this season. The capital club has finished first in Bundesliga 2. Arrival of Bayern Munich shotstopper Thomas Kraft gives their backline a comforting cushion as well. Midfielders Ottl and Torun can be termed good additions to the squad.The defense needs a bit of a revamp. Even though the Blue-Whites have registered 14 clean sheets in the previous season, their porous defense led them to concede 28 goals in total, out of which they conceded more than two in eight games. The pre-season friendlies do not boast of much high hopes either. They started off with a bang, scoring goals for fun against amateur sides. But they lost the next three consecutive games against top Swiss clubs (FC Zürich, Grasshoppers and Young Boys Bern), conceding nine goals and scoring only twice. That was followed by another friendly loss against Real Madrid. They will find it really difficult to stay up.
Fellow promoted outfit FC Augsburg is standing in the firing line as well. In fact, this entire campaign will be like a relegation battle for a team, which is going to experience their maiden voyage in the German top tier of football in their 104 years of history. Augsburg have conceded the least number of goals in the last season. They are also in third place in number of goals scored. With a +31 goal difference last term, and a +20 goal difference in the season before, they have shown relative consistency in performance, especially at the back. But the problem is that out of the all the teams, they have players with least amount of experience in the top flight. Only goalkeeper Jentzsch (35), defenders Langkamp and Callen-Bracken and midfielder Molders had played in Bundesliga before. Even manager Luhaky had limited Bundesliga exposure in the past. So, in all likelihood, Augsburg is one of the candidates to go down.
Probable Les Misérables
It took the Champions of 2008-2009 only two years to fight for a place in the top flight till the last fixture. Steve Mclaren, manager of the then Dutch Champions FC Twente joined Wolfsburg to replace Magath. McLaren never took to the German outfit’s style and soon the terrific trio of Misimovic, Dzeko and Grafite was disintegrated. McLaren tried to fix the defense by bringing in Kjaer. But by the time Kjaer got used to the German game, Wolfsburg were already out of the top ten. This season, Wolfsburg again starts with their talismanic coach Magath. They have also made a handful of signings in all departments to strengthen the squad. Two defenders were slotted in from relegated Frankfurt to bolster the ailing defense. Signing of Christian Träsch and Salihamidzic shows that Magath is looking for experienced campaigners to turn things around. With so many fresh faces in the team, it needs to gel properly. So far, they did not get sufficient time to do so and that was evident in their defeat against Red Bull Leipzig in their DFB-Pokal opener. It cannot get any worse for the club if the manager chooses to press the self-destruction button by not keeping Diego in his plans. They might just have to endure yet another relegation battle at the end of the season.
Stuttgart had a tough time last season, as they were flirting with relegation on and off. A late surge in their campaign turned out to be good enough to bail them out to finish mid-table. Stuttgart might be expected to put up a fight to qualify for Europa League qualification. But departure of Träsch and Marica makes it difficult, on paper. Star player Harnik is still there. The signing of Ibrahima Traore and William Kvist gives them hopes of more attacking options, alongside Cacau and Pogrebnyak. But what they still lack is the solidity in defense. Lest the Swabians find a way to organize their defense, they’ll continue to leak goals in the most unconvincing way at the most inopportune moments in a match, just like they did last term.
Players To Watch Out For
The Korean Müller could already have curved a niche last term if injury did not have other plans for him. The versatile attacker, who can play as a striker, an attacking midfielder or as a winger on either flanks, scored nine goals in ten games in last term’s pre-season friendlies, which included a howitzer against Chelsea. After he came back from injury, Son scored on his debut game against Köln – a goal that made him the youngest ever Hamburg player to score a Bundesliga goal at the age of 18, breaking a 39-year old record of Manfred Kaltz. The crazy Korean talent has already been lauded by Franz Beckenbauer when he tipped Son to become the next Cha Bum-Kun and Van Nistelrooy termed him as ‘something special’. Having already scored 18 goals from nine pre-season games, he is surely the player to watch out for this season.
Usami, the latest dispatch from the Far East (though on loan), has already earmarked his arrival with a couple of decent outings for Bayern Munich in the pre-season friendlies. The Gamba Osaka youth graduate had a breakthrough season last term, in which he played 37 games and scored 11 times. He was later voted as J-League’s best young player of 2010. The versatile attacker normally plays as a left-winger but can play up front as well. He has a good first touch and breathtaking close control of the ball, even when running at a good speed. With both Ribery and Robben having a history fitness issues, Usami might just get enough chances to put a long lasting impression on the fans.
Probable Unsung Heroes
Nurnberg’s talented right-sided centre half Philipp Wollscheid, who broke through the ranks of their lower league reserve side, enjoyed a wonderful season last term. The late bloomer, who was plying his trade for FC Saarbrucken in the fifth tier of German football only four years ago, has been one of the main reasons of Der Club’s solidity at the back. He is strong in aerial duels and is equally effective on either side of the box during set-pieces (has scored three goals as well). Having started his career as a midfielder in lower leagues, he has good ball playing ability and has good judgement and anticipation as well. He is surely going to be a player to watch out for, but might end his season as a romantic’s tragic hero.
Before being signed by Stuttgart, Harnik played for Bremen’s lower league reserve side and even experienced a successful loan spell with Bundesliga 2 side Fortuna Dusseldorf. Last year, the attacking all-rounder made immense impact for the Swabians, hitting the net 14 times and providing seven assists in 40 games. Despite the presence of other well-known attacking talents, Harnik still managed to cement a place in the starting line-up. The talented Austrian, who was mainly deployed as a right winger last term, will again have to shoulder the creativity of the team.