Frankfurt - Not only is it going to be the first time in two decades that Eintracht Frankfurt line up for their team photo without Oka Nikolov, but it is also the first time in seven years that that picture is going to be featuring in match programmes throughout Europe.
Surprise no more
The Eintracht veteran made the first move of his playing career at the end of last season, fulfilling a dream by moving to the USA. The 39-year-old now plies his trade with Philadelphia Union, but with Kevin Trapp back after breaking his hand, the blow has been softened somewhat.
He leaves behind a side who have shed their surprise-package status after qualifying for Europe in their first season after promotion. The rest of the Bundesliga now knows all about the attacking style which Armin Veh’s troops employed, and reaching the UEFA Europa League will serve only to fuel the expectations further in Frankfurt.
With that in mind, general manager Bruno Hübner and Veh have succeeded in keeping the core of their successful side intact while adding further strength in depth. In defence, Marco Russ has returned from VfL Wolfsburg to provide a strong alternative to Bamba Anderson and Carlos Zambrano while midfielder Johannes Flum, who has joined from SC Freiburg, can also help out at the back in an emergency.
Increasing the alternatives
The versatile Jan Rosenthal, who has also come from Freiburg, is an alternative to Takashi Inui and Stefan Aigner on both flanks, while he can also be used up front. Right at the top of the pile, former Hoffenheim forward Joselu and Srdjan Lakic are vying for berths in the starting XI.
Pirmin Schwegler and Sebastian Rode in the engine room, as well as attacking midfielder Alexander Meier remain fixtures in the side while Stephan Schröck, another recruit from Hoffenheim, is a valid alternative, both as cover for Sebastian Jung at the back or Aigner up front.
And if Frankfurt cross the play-off hurdle into the main field of the Europa League, they are going to need such a broad selection of players. Then, they may even have to consider finding a short-term replacement for hot prospect Marc Stendera, who tore cruciate knee ligaments in a pre-season friendly against VfR Aalen.
A repeat of last season’s soaring start to the season would be something of a surprise, however. The Eagles start with two tricky away games at newcomers Hertha Berlin and Eintracht Braunschweig while hosting last year’s UEFA Champions League finalists Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
If they do come through those four fixtures unscathed, then their aim of “becoming an established member of the Bundesliga” would be a step closer to realisation. The fans certainly believe in them. 26,000 season tickets have been sold, even if Nikolov will only be watching his former team mates from the other side of the Atlantic.