Schalke head chasing pack
© AFP

This season’s Bayern Munich kit proudly sports four stars above the club crest in recognition of the Bavarians' 20 domestic title triumphs since the formation of the German Bundesliga in 1963. On the eve of the 46th top flight season, the biggest questions are whether the champions will retain their title with the same ease as last term, and who, if anyone, is capable of stopping them. And speaking of stars, the league boasts a handful of classy newcomers, although a clutch of its leading lights have, metaphorically speaking, gone out.

The Bundesliga currently possesses no obvious successors to Ottmar Hitzfeld and Oliver Kahn, two of the most successful and charismatic personalities of their respective generations, whose legacy will infuse the competition for some time yet. Rafael van der Vaart’s switch from Hamburg to Real Madrid and Marcelinho’s departure from VfL Wolfsburg in favour of Brazilian outfit Flamengo deprives German fans of two of the most compelling players of recent years. However, 2008/09 will certainly not be without star names, as a good number of new faces are determined to make their mark on the Bundesliga, and an exceptionally promising crop of home-grown youngsters appear ready for the next great leap forward.

The champions
Arguably more spectacular than any new arrival on the playing side was the shock appointment of Jurgen Klinsmann as Bayern head coach. The 44-year-old, nothing if not his own man, has hired an almost entirely new and thoroughly multi-cultural coaching team as he takes up the baton so successfully wielded by Hitzfeld. How Klinsmann gets to grips with the enormous weight of expectation at the club will be one of the most intensely scrutinised aspects of the new campaign. The squad is fundamentally the same as last season, when Franck Ribery, Luca Toni and Miroslav Klose merely headed a long list of costly additions in a top-to-bottom overhaul on the playing side.

The team which ultimately gelled and strode away with the title after Christmas has been expanded by just two new arrivals this summer, Werder Bremen stalwart Tim Borowski and veteran No2 keeper Hans-Jorg Butt from Benfica. A new bonus for the stars is an innovative and fully revamped training facility geared at promoting Klinsmann’s philosophy of helping every player improve on a daily basis. Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has admitted that a new player could have been purchased for the cost of the training ground renovation.

The challengers
"Anything less than top spot is starting to get boring," declared Schalke midfielder Jermaine Jones, laying down the gauntlet in the general direction of Munich. Die Königsblauen (The Royal Blues), third and second respectively in the last two seasons, have hired a new coach and made a number of targeted signings in their bid to reel in the Bavarians. Favoured candidate Fred Rutten was lured from the Netherlands and has duly taken the hotseat, while Peru striker Jefferson Farfan and Dutch discovery Orlando Engelaar promise genuine extra strength in the squad. Schalke should apply real and noticeable pressure on the champions.

Werder Bremen, Bayern’s chief challengers down the years, will also feature in the chasing pack. Influential midfielder Torsten Frings’ call for a new striker has gone unheeded, the club preferring to bring in Austria international Sebastian Prodl for the defence, but Diego’s gifts and vision should keep the northerners there or thereabouts at the top. Dethroned champions VfB Stuttgart have purchased class and experience in the shape of keeper Jens Lehmann and Dutch defender Khalid Boulahrouz, while new Hamburg boss Martin Jol’s initial priority will be coping with life after Van der Vaart.

The outside bet
With former Bayern supremo Felix Magath at the helm and a lavish spending spree behind them, VfL Wolfsburg aim to break into the country’s footballing elite this term. One club to benefit indirectly from this ambitous project were Palermo, who netted €20.3 million for Italian FIFA World Cup™-winning pair Andrea Barzagli and Cristian Zaccardo as the Wolves go in search of a UEFA Champions League berth. Bosnia playmaker Zvjezdan Misimovic, who spent his formative years at Bayern, will be asked to ensure the name Marcelinho is swiftly consigned to history.

Biggest movers
Following his release by Arsenal at the end of last term, Jens Lehmann has ended his international career and returned home for the final act in his top-level career. Barzagli and Zaccardo underline Wolfsburg’s ambitions of evolving into a serious force in German football. Farfan and Engelaar look like perfect signings to fill existing gaps at Schalke. Finland goal-getter Mikael Forssell (Hannover 96), Greece striker Nikos Liberopoulos (Eintracht Frankfurt) and Portugal midfielder Petit (Cologne) will add to both their clubs’ and the league’s attractiveness. And after seven legendary years with minnows FSV Mainz 05, Jurgen Klopp has accepted the challenge of awakening sleeping giants Borussia Dortmund. The nation’s most popular coach will doubtless continue providing memorable quotes along the way.

Players to watch
Seasoned observers are licking their lips at the prospect of watching gifted young midfielders Marko Marin (19 years old) and Toni Kroos (18) continue their footballing education. Marin, a product of the Eintracht Frankfurt youth academy, has already won his first full cap but is yet to make his Bundesliga debut with promoted Borussia Monchengladbach, while Kroos will be looking to make real progress as a squad player at Bayern this term. Alongside these two gems, a good number of the European championship-winning German U-19 starlets should feature in the top flight at least from time to time. The Bundesliga is certainly not suffering from a shortage of youthful talent.

Have your say
Thinking ahead to the new Bundesliga season, what are you looking forward to the most? Can Schalke or any other club push Bayern all the way? Tell us what you think by clicking on the 'Add your comment' link.