The Bundesliga's 49th season kicks off on Friday night, when defending champion Borussia Dortmund hosts a completely re-engineered Hamburger SV. Last season's intoxicating randomness proved how difficult it is to predict Europe's most open league but here's a moderately educated guess as to how the 18 teams might finish -- subject to some last-minute wheeling and dealing, naturally.
"We don't get used to finishing in second place here", president Uli Hoeness told SI.com last week in Munich, when asked about his club's €46 million ($65.6M) spending spree. The introduction of Brazilian right-back Rafinha (Genua) allows Philipp Lahm to be much more effective on the left, and Boateng (Man City) will go some way of addressing the Bavarian's decade-old problem at the heart of the defense. Neuer's all-around class won't go amiss, either. In Jupp Heynckes, the club has brought back an experienced manager who will make the side more balanced. Bayern is by no means invincible, but even with the best will in the world, it's impossible to see past it.
Dortmund succeeded in keeping almost the entire squad together and the carefully scouted new additions should add the kind of depth to the squad that's needed when Dortmund's high-pressing, high-tempo game will be put to the test by international as well as Bundesliga opponents. Recent surprise champions have struggled to keep up their game in the following season, and playing in the Champions League, where Borussia can expect a very tough draw, will certainly present be a steep learning curve. But Jurgen Klopp and his team are good enough to finish in the top three to consolidate their position.
It'll be fascinating to see whether new manager Robin Dutt can get this talented squad to play the collective pressing game he employed at Freiburg. Despite the sale of Arturo Vidal to Juventus, there is little doubt that this very much a top three side. In Schürrle, Leverkusen have signed arguably the most exciting young German forward. If it wasn't for the Champions League distraction and a slightly below-par defense, this side could have been real championship contenders.
The Royal Blues overachieved in Europe and underachieved in the league in 2010/11. This season, however, normal service should resume. While there's some tension between manager Ralf Rangnick and Spanish striker Raul -- deployed in a deeper, midfield role -- as well as the problem of dealing with a good dozen of unwanted players left over from the Felix Magath days, S04 also has plenty of firepower, especially if Klaas-Jan Huntelaar can stay fit. An early exit in the Europa League might see them finish even slightly higher.
Plenty of injury problems at the back will make Stuttgart's start to the campaign very difficult. But its fortunes should improve drastically once Mexican international center back Maza settles and returning striker Schieber finds his scoring boots again. Bruno Labbadia, despite his often flawed man-management, has great tactical know-how and should be able to lead the youthful Swabians, who are unencumbered by international soccer, back into the top third of the table.
Every season has its surprise team -- unless it has four surprise teams, as in 2010/11, when Kaiserslautern's exploits were only overshadowed by Mainz, Nürnberg and Hannover. This year, the German "Red Devils" are well placed to come up on the blind-side yet again, thanks to the capture of much-wanted Israeli striker Shechter (Hapoel Tel Aviv), a man with Champions League experience, and his midfield compatriot Vermouth. Coach Marco Kurz has managed to blend a bit of style with the traditional fighting spirit and he can rely on the fabled home support. The one to watch.
An unofficial transfer-embargo by the supervisory board -- who are worried about balancing the books -- has hampered Werder's efforts to strengthen this season. On the other hand, key players like Per Mertesacker and Marko Marin are, at the time of writing, still on board, and it's inconceivable that the Thomas Schaaf-coached side should play as badly as they did last season again. The lopsided team will still ship goals like there's no tomorrow but also score enough to get back to where they belong.
Hannover will have a virtually unchanged starting lineup, which in itself is a sign of real progress: qualification for the Europa League and the unbridled euphoria in Lower Saxony have made it possible to keep last year's heroes, Ivorian striker Didier Ya Konan, midfielder Manuel Schmiedebach and defender Christian Schulz. Playing a Sunday-Thursday-Sunday schedule has posed problems for international newsies in the past, thus 96 is unlikely to get near the Champions League spots this time. Nevertheless, it should be another season to savor for Mirko Slomka and his men.
It's all change, all change at the Volksparkstadion. Hamburg has got rid of a plethora of big(gish) names and replaced them with talents from Chelsea's academy, thanks to the contacts of new sporting director Frank Arnesen. It's a high-risk strategy. As a result, Hamburg are easily the most unpredictable team in this incredibly open league. Mixed preseason performances suggest that building a new, successful team will take some time.
The years of spending big seem over at the Rhein-Neckar-Stadion. Hoffenheim, supported by billionaire benefactor Dietmar Hopp, has only bought a couple of cheap, young players to add depth to the squad. There are also plenty returning on-loan players like Wellington and Franco Zucolini who are still surplus to requirements. General manager Ernst Tanner has targeted "a top half finish" but TSG will just miss out, despite the positive impact of new coach Holger Stanislawski.
Felix Magath's penchant for going nuts in the transfer market ensures that there'll be at least one or two more arrivals this month, as well as the possible departure of out-of-favour Diego, who's wanted by Atletico Madrid. The Volkswagen-owned team will be sturdier at the back but there's little flair, especially in wide areas. A transitional season is the best VfL supporters can hope for -- before Magath will attempt to spend his way back into the big time in the summer of 2012.
"We are 100 percent different this year", said manager Thomas Tuchel. Different in a good way, though? Mainz has lost the heart of its successful "boy band" in Schürrle and Holtby and there are bound to be setbacks in the rebuilding process, even if the new recruits are able to reproduce the high-pressing game that took 05 to the edge of the Champions League last season . Survival is not in question, however.
The comings and goings in the summer have had little bearing on the first 11 but there's already been a big, hysterical debate so typical of this club: new manager Stale Solbakken has fallen out with star striker Lucas Podolski after stripping the Germany player of his beloved armband. Solbakken's progressive methods will ensure Köln won't get sucked into the relegation quagmire but it's difficult to see it getting anywhere near the top third.
After a sensational campaign, the Franconians narrowly missed out on the Europa League, which is perhaps just as well: after the loss of their three most influential players, the squad would not have been able to cope. As it is, Dieter Hecking's expertise and a host of new, promising youngsters will see them do all right, even if last year's expedition to the higher echelons of the table will be but a distant memory.
In anticipation of cashing in on goal-getter Papiss Demba Cissé, Freiburg brought in Dembélé from Levski Sofia. But Cissé has still not been sold, despite plenty of interest, and Freiburg look like starting the season with two excellent strikers. Another comfortable midtable spot seems possible but Marcus Sorg, the new manager, is an unknown quantity at this level and the early matches point to lack of cohesion.
The "Foals" will do well to stay the course again. Manager Lucien Favre seems adept at getting the most out of a squad but the overall quality is still fairly limited. The experienced Swedish defender Wendt will add some steel at the back while midfielder Otsu is among the steadily increasing number of Japanese imports eager to make a name for himself in the Bundesliga. There's an acute danger that star man Marco Reus will get tempting offers come January.
Manager Markus Babbel has bought well in the offseason, considering the tight budget in the capital. Whether it'll be enough to survive is a different matter, however: Babbel is a coach who gets a team to play well but is less versed in finding solutions when results are bad. In light of the tough competition, the "Grand Old Dame" of German soccer might sadly not be quite up to scratch.
The Bundesliga debutante has its work cut out to stay afloat. A disagreement between striker Michael Thurk and Jos Luhukay that looks like resulting in the player's departure won't help matters in the slightest. Lorenzo Davids, cousin of Edgar, will provide a modicum of glamour; anything but bottom place, however, would be a huge surprise.