With the second round of the Premier League taking place this weekend, and with the Spanish and Italian seasons another week away, the German Bundesliga begins tonight. The majority of the games take place tomorrow but the season opener between Bayern Munich (last year’s winners) and VFL Wolfsburg (the previous season’s champions) is the finest opener that could be anticipated.
As one of the strongest teams in the world right now, Bayern have only improved on last year’s roster, adding the returning Toni Kroos to their fine group already containing Philip Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery. They won the league and cup in impressive style, bulldozing teams as the season progressed, as well as knocking out Manchester United, Juventus and Lyon to reach the Champions League final.
For Wolfsburg, improvement comes in the form of new coach Steve McLaren – fresh from his incredible exploits in Holland with FC Twente – and the arrival of much-coveted Danish defender Simon Kjaer. With little money to spend, Wolfsburg rely heavily on retaining players. For them, the project of the summer was to hold on to star striker and captain Edin Dzeko, as well as Zvjezdan Misimovic, Diego Benaglio and Grafite.
Bayern are undoubtedly the better-equipped team, able to call on reserves the likes of which most top teams would include as starters (Miroslav Klose, Anatoliy Tymoschuk and Hamit Altintop), and, in spite of the probable omissions of Ribery, Robben and Ivica Olic, it’s best to assume Bayern will walk their first game. But rocky times lie ahead.
The league of the season last year, no other country had a Champions League finalist and Europa League semi-finalist (Bayern and Hamburg). What is certain is that the gulf Bayern once had between themselves and the rest of the teams is shrinking. Wolfsburg, with one or two thrifty acquisitions, could really push on with their current setup; Werder Bremen finished last season with enviable power, giving them the perfect momentum for the start of this season; Bayer Leverkusen were the last unbeaten team in Europe and now have a fully fit frontline of Kiessling and Helmes, two of Germany’s strongest strikers, as well as Michael Ballack.
There are three other teams with a reasonable chance of challenging the above. Stuttgart have lost Jens Lehmann to retirement and transferred Sami Khedira to Real Madrid but they still possess a core of very strong players; Hamburg are perfectly balanced and contain such firepower as Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Piotr Trochowski and Eljero Elia, making them a particularly tricky team to beat, and without European football to detract their attention, will focus on the league; finally, Shalke have unshackled themselves by letting want-away pair Rafinha and Kevin Kuranyi seek fresh challenges, while persuading players like Raul and Christophe Metzelder to make one final push for silverware in their careers.
Even the lower-table teams like Cologne, Dortmund and Hoffenheim can all claim to be capable of upsetting Bayern et al.
The first round of games is as follows:
Friday: Bayern Munich vs VFL Wolsburg (Bayern to win).
Saturday: Cologne vs Kaiserslautern (Cologne to win), Freiburg vs St Pauli (draw), Hannover 96 vs Eintracht Frankfurt (draw), TSG Hoffenheim vs Werder Bremen (Bremen to win), Monchengladbach vs Nurnberg (draw), Hamburg vs Shalke (Hamburg to win).
Sunday: Mainz 05 vs Stuttgart (Stuttgart to win), Dortmund vs Leverkusen (draw).
Tonight’s test between Wolfsburg and Bayern will be an interesting spectacle for the neutral observer. While I cannot envisage Wolfsburg leaving the Allianz Arena with anything other than defeat, stranger things have happened in German football: in the first round of last season, none of Bayern, Stuttgart, Bremen or Leverkusen managed an opening-day win, yet all 4 ended up in the top 6 and qualified for Europe.
For Bayern to succeed in a league which is now as strong as the top 3 of Spain, England and Italy, they need a regularly fit core of players. Last season, it was acceptable to rotate due to injury problems (only 6 players passed the 30 game mark), with important players Ribery and Robben regularly unavailable. Thomas Muller was a sensation, providing the much-needed element of surprise as well as the more measurable contribution of 11 assists and 13 goals – but Muller, the Golden Ball winner of the 2010 World Cup, is hardly a surprise anymore! If Ribery, Robben and Olic continue to be absent, the problems of 2008-2009 will inevitably come back and Bayern will find a rival ready to pounce – and that’s precisely what I see happening.
As the team with all the right ingredients (defenders, goal-scorers and a long-serving, successful coach), Werder Bremen’s time is right now. An impressive 3-1 win over Sampdoria showed that they’re back to their best. With a meeting between the two coming very early in the season (the 3rd round), it is imperative that Bayern do not lose to Bremen or face the prospect of chasing them for the remainder of the season.