Bundesliga boys on their marks
The torture of a football-free summer ends for German fans on Friday evening when champions Wolfsburg meet Stuttgart in the official opening match of the new Bundesliga season. In this most open of the big European leagues, a handful of sides rate as realistic title contenders. Most pundits believe no fewer than ten clubs are in with a shout of Europe – and the rest will spend the league's 47th season attempting to stave off the spectre of relegation.
FIFA.com looks ahead to what promises to be another exciting and closely-fought campaign, with the battle for form and places at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ adding a touch of spice for the players, and bonus thrills for the fans.
The reigning champions count among the favourites as they seek to defend the title. Under now-departed boss Felix Magath, Wolfsburg enjoyed a stellar 2008/09 campaign, winning game after game thanks to the magic worked by attacking threesome Zvjezdan Misimovic, Edin Dzeko and the league's leading scorer Grafite.
The club based in, sponsored by and majority owned by Germany's very own Motown succeeded in attracting former league-winning supremo Armin Veh to replace Magath. Last term's squad remains more or less intact – the star trio have all been signed to new, long-term contracts – and the Wolves have sharpened their teeth in midfield and attack by the addition of Thomas Kahlenberg, Karim Ziani and Obafemi Martins.
You cannot discuss title candidates in Germany without mentioning Bayern. After a season without silverware last term, the 21-time champions have waved the chequebook this summer with the signings of Mario Gomez (€35m), Ukraine enforcer Anatoliy Tymoshchuk (€11m) and Croatia utility man Danijel Pranjic (€7.7m).
Coach Louis van Gaal has crossed the border from the Netherlands to head up the charge, instantly stamping his iron-clad authority on the club and showing he has no respect for reputations by sanctioning the departure of Brazilian FIFA Confederations Cup-winning captain Lucio. The likes of Italian FIFA World Cup winner Luca Toni, Argentina regular Martin Demichelis and even new arrival Tymoshchuk have no guarantee of first-team football.
The leading pack is highly likely to feature Stuttgart, plus northern twosome Hamburg and Werder Bremen. Stuttgart have compensated for the departure of sharp-shooter Gomez by re-signing old boy Aleksandr Hleb on loan from Barcelona, and bringing in Pavel Pogrebnyak from Zenit St. Petersburg. The East European newcomers will be expected to share responsibility with keeper Jens Lehmann, defender Serdar Tasci and midfield workhorses Thomas Hitzlsperger and Sami Khedira, as the 2007 champions seek to confirm last year's consolidation under coach Markus Babbel.
After a turbulent summer, Hamburg will be looking for a fresh start in 2009/10. Coach Martin Jol left for Ajax and director of sport Dietmar Beiersdorfer received the managerial equivalent of a red card, with Bruno Labbadia coming in from Leverkusen as the new boss. Quality signings Eljero Elia (Twente), Ze Roberto (Bayern) and Marcus Berg (Groningen) look useful additions to a squad which performed with bravura last term only to run out of steam on the home straight.
Werder Bremen take their usual place among the league's top clubs. The German Cup winners and UEFA Cup finalists came a relatively poor tenth last term, but opponents will underestimate Thomas Schaaf's side at their peril. Midfield is the strongest area of the team, with seasoned warhorse Torsten Frings, shooting star Mesut Ozil, new arrival Marko Marin, and prodigal son Tim Borowski: the 2006 FIFA World Cup participant returns after a season of misunderstandings at Bayern. At the back, Tim Wiese, Naldo and Per Mertesacker add physical presence, while costly newcomer Marcelo Moreno is expected to bang in the goals.
Borussia Dortmund and Hoffenheim both had their moments last season. Promoted Hoffenheim ended the first half of the campaign in an improbable first place, but their consistency deserted them after Christmas and a sensational title triumph proved much too big an ask. Another decisive factor was the loss of prolific marksman Vedad Ibisevic to a ruptured cruciate ligament in the winter break, but his return and the capture of Josip Simunic from Hertha Berlin adds class to Ralf Rangnick's squad, and a UEFA Europa League place looks a real possibility.
In Dortmund, the league's best-supported club yearn for a return to the European stage, after missing out on the Europa League in the last minute of last season. Lucas Barrios, the top scorer in the world's top flights last term, has been brought in from Colo Colo to replace Basel-bound Alexander Frei, and could well be the man to fire his new club to a top-five finish.
That is the target for Borussia's neighbours and fierce rivals Schalke, now under Magath's austere command. However, with a transfer outlay of just €5m, the men in Royal Blue will need a miracle to do any better than that.
The big transfers
Ziani and Martins are useful additions to the champions' squad. The Nigerian in particular will up the ante for seeded duo Grafite and Dzeko. Gomez became Bayern's record signing back in May, and has already started repaying his new employers with goals in pre-season and a brace in the cup.
The gifted Hleb and the burly Pogrebnyak will add a new dimension to Stuttgart's game as Babbel charts a course towards a brighter future. Croatia regular Simunic brings more stability to the Hoffenheim defence, while Argentinian hitman Barrios will hope to hit the goal trail for Dortmund.
The new faces
Felix Magath has turned his back on the champions to take up a new challenge with Schalke. As coach, general manager and board director in one, his target over his four-year tenure is to bring the German title to Gelsenkirchen for the first time since 1958.
Another new face is actually an old hand. Lukas Podolski fled Bayern for his home town club Cologne in exchange for €10m, his return sparking something approaching mass hysteria over the summer. If he can recapture the form which catapulted him to fame as a teenager, his beloved 'FC' could finish in the top half this term.
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