Do Bayern Munich have a weakness?
Pep Guardiola’s first season at the Bayern reins saw the Bavarians sprint ruthlessly to their 23rd Bundesliga title with seven games still to play, breaking their own record from the previous season. They might not find the cake quite so easy to walk upon this season, however.
Bayern’s midfield will surely suffer for the absence of the classy Toni Kroos, sold for a puzzling bargain £20m to Real Madrid. Kroos became the subject of criticism during his time at Bayern for a perceived lack of effort – it is often remarked that he finds the game “too easy” – but with Javi Martinez now out for the majority of the season after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament, the defending champions could have done with Kroos’s versatility and range of passing.
His departure has the potential to destabilise Bayern off the field too: Guardiola made it a condition of his joining the club that the player must not be sold at any price.
Can Borussia Dortmund close the gap?
Only the sunniest of Westphalien optimists would suggest that Jürgen Klopp’s side can match Bayern over 34 games. But now 2013’s marquee summer signings Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have had a chance to settle in and adapt to Klopp’s demanding, high-energy system Dortmund will hope to at least make a dent in the yawning 19-point gap that separated them from the Bavarian giants last season.
The returning Ilkay Gundogan will feel like a new signing for Klopp – the German international missed the whole of 2013-14 with a back injury. Add his midfield presence to the attacking razor of Marco Reus, who looks likely to stick around at Signal Iduna Park at least until next summer, and the arrival of Colombian striker Adrian Ramos from Hertha Berlin, and Dortmund’s prospects take on a rosier tint.
Where next for Hamburg?
The precipitous fall of the 1980 European Cup finalists was perhaps the story of last season’s Bundesliga. Hamburg avoided the calamity of relegation by a gossamer thread, defeating Greuther Fürth on away goals in the relegation play-off.
Two changes of manager in the space of 34 games did little to ease the sense of impermanence surrounding the club. Bert van Marwijk’s arrival in September 2013 made little sense at the time, given the relative success enjoyed by previous coach Thorsten Fink. So it proved as the Dutchman lasted just five months before being replaced by former Hannover 96 boss Mirko Slomka, who fared only slightly less disastrously.
Slomka has made attempts to avoid another chaotic season with the signing of the talented German international winger Nicolai Müller from Mainz. But the fact that the error-prone former Arsenal defender Johan Djourou is vice-captain shows how thin and inexperienced the squad still is.
Who will make the Champions League?
Behind the galloping horse of Bayern and Dortmund’s frisky young colt, the pack chasing the remaining two Champions League places looks as tightly grouped as ever.
Schalke 04 finished third last season and have held on to their prized assets Julian Draxler, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and the 18-year-old starlet Max Meyer, who remains the subject of intense interest from a host of top European clubs. They appear equipped to claim a place at Europe’s top table for a club record fourth season in a row. Bayer Leverkusen’s position in the top four is shakier, now that manager Sami Hyypia has chosen to further his career at Brighton in preference to remaining in Germany’s industrial heartland.
They will be challenged by Wolfsburg, who have added the considerable playmaking talents of Kevin de Bruyne to their usual clutch of talented, lesser-known Brazilians. Leverkusen finished just a point ahead of Wolfsburg last year – the two could well have swapped positions by the season’s end.
Don’t count out upstarts Borussia Mönchengladbach, who are well versed in punching above their weight. If Brazilian forward Raffael and Swiss midfield schemer Granit Xhaka spark, Gladbach will thrill and win in equal measure.
Can the promoted teams survive?
SC Paderborn are surrounded by footballing empires – Leverkusen, Dortmund and Schalke all lie within two hours’ drive of the 15,300-seat Benteler Arena. Few expect Paderborn to survive, yet for inspiration they need only look at Augsburg, themselves a satellite club of Bayern Munich, who have defied predictions of imminent demise for three years since their promotion to the Bundesliga in 2011.
Their neighbours and fellow promotion-winners FC Köln look a surer bet to retain their top-flight status. The three-time German champions have the backing of a vociferous 50,000-strong home support – a fact that makes it all the more remarkable that they have been absent from the Bundesliga for two seasons.