Bundesliga preview: All to play four
The Bundesliga season kicks off on Friday night with Borussia Dortmund hosting Hamburg at the Westfalenstadion with more at stake now than there has been in over a decade.
The Bundesliga’s recent boom, with crowd figures soaring and star names such as Frank Ribery, Raul and Arjen Robben all attracted to Germany, has seen the Bundesliga overtake Serie A in UEFA’s rankings.
That means there will be four berths in the Champions League up for grabs at the end of the season and, given the unpredictability of the league, any of the 18 clubs in the top flight can realistically aim for a place in Europe next season.
"Getting a fourth Champions League berth back is as important as winning the Champions League itself," commented Bayer Leverkusen’s director of sport Rudi Voller in the Rheinische Post newspaper.
His club is one of many candidates for silverware this year, even if the man who led the team to second last season, Jupp Heynckes, has defected to the record champion Bayern Munich.
His place has been taken by Robin Dutt, who guided relegation favourite Freiburg to a comfortable ninth-placed finish last season and has set his sights on ending Bayer’s eternal wait for the title.
"It is pointless to aim for third or fourth place after finishing second last year," he said.
"Of course you have got to express the desire to finish top."
Leverkusen starts it season in Mainz on Sunday with the overwhelming title favourite Bayern Munich rounding off the first weekend of action at home to Borussia Monchengladbach.
It is not only the arrival of Heynckes which has made Bayern once again the team to beat, with the signings of Jerome Boateng, Rafinha and Manuel Neuer serving to confirm that the Bavarian is financially in a league of its own.
However, Wolfsburg, Stuttgart and Dortmund have all shown in recent years that money does not guarantee success and they will all be candidates again this year.
Wolves has its title-winning coach Felix Magath back at the helm for its trip to Cologne on Saturday while Stuttgart will be keen to put a disappointing season of struggle behind it and get off on the right foot at home to Schalke.
Last season’s surprise package Hannover has a home game against ambitious Hoffenheim while the 51st club to appear in the Bundesliga, Augsburg, take its bow at home to Freiburg.
Elsewhere, Werder Bremen hosts Kaiserslautern and Hertha Berlin return to the top flight after a year’s absence with a home fixture against Nurnberg.