Dortmund still leading the way
25 August ~ The new Bundesliga season started last night. Bayern Munich's current bogey team, Borussia Dortmund, won 2-1 against Werder Bremen, who have been the Bavarians' most consistent challengers over the past decade. Supporters of Dortmund or Bremen might disagree but for the majority of German football fans the game was merely a prelude to the really important question of this season: can Bayern bounce back from losing two successive championships and stamp their authority on the rest of the Bundesliga again?
The signs aren't promising. In the last two years Bayern have lost each of their six encounters with Dortmund: four league meetings, one cup final and the battle to sign Marco Reus from Mönchengladbach.
Observers are far more interested in how Reus, voted German Footballer of the Year for 2012, gets on in a Dortmund shirt than about any of Bayern's own transfer targets. Bayern won't even start the season as the overwhelming favourite – while they are still destined to remain part of the Big Two, it is as a distant second.
Further down, the Bundesliga has recently proven to be hospitable to small well-run clubs clubs with an average squad but a good gameplan. Mainz, Freiburg, Nuremburg and Augsburg all stand a considerably better chance of escaping relegation than five years ago.
Counter-attacking specialists Hannover 96 showed that a slightly better set of players can bring European qualification twice in a row. A truly exceptional player might take such a club from relegation fodder to the brink of the Champions League in the space of a one season – Reus at Mönchengladbach.
These circumstances came about because a number of self-proclaimed European challengers all went through rocky patches at the same time. Bremen are regrouping, not helped by a penny-pinching board trying to do everything on the cheap. Hamburg have no money to spend and while Schalke finished third last season, they looked out of their depth against decent opponents.
Both Leverkusen and Hoffenheim have fine squads but seem resigned to their fate whenever things go against them. Stuttgart and Wolfsburg offer the best bets for a surprise package but neither usually gets into gear before Christmas.
This year's line-up is joined by three former German champions – Frankfurt, Fürth and Düsseldorf – all of whose titles predate the formation of the Bundesliga in 1963. For Fürth, who were last national champions in 1929, it is a first-ever season in the Bundesliga and they might be the one to watch.
They are a motley crew of quick runners and grafters, masterminded by Mike Büskens, an ambitious coach who looks, acts and talks like a throwback to the 1970s. He might be the next managerial star in the making – particularly if Fürth gets something out of their inaugural Bundesliga match against Bayern today. Peter Schimkat