Munich - The opening game of the 2014/15 Bundesliga season between FC Bayern München and VfL Wolfsburg is a big one, of that there is no doubt. Just how big, however, will only be revealed over the course of the weeks and months that follow.
Klopp: 'Rivals to be taken very seriously'
If the record champions remain the measure of all things in Germany's top flight, their Matchday 1 visitors are one of the few sides considered to have any serious chance of giving them a run for their money, whether in the upcoming campaign or slightly further down the line. So what are Wolfsburg's prospects of getting themselves back in the mix at the very top this season?
For the first time since their surprise title success in 2009, the Wolves have international commitments to look forward to as well as those on the home front after a fifth-place finish last May earned them automatic entry to the group phase of the UEFA Europa League. That already leaves them ahead of the schedule laid out late last year by sporting director Klaus Allofs, who said: “we're not planning for Europe yet, we're not quite at that stage”.
Citing a return to the international arena as a “middle-term goal,” the former Bundesliga sharpshooter was at pains to stress that it all had to be done “on a sound economic footing. We need to be operating in the same kind sphere as Bayer Leverkusen or Schalke. Dortmund and Bayern are on a different level altogether.” As far as that goes, though, Jürgen Klopp is not so sure. “VfL Wolfsburg are plenty powerful,” the BVB coach surmised not long after, adding, “they're rivals to be taken very seriously, although that in itself is no surprise".
No surprise indeed, given the Volkswagen-backed club's unadorned ambition to return to the dizzying heights attained five years ago under Felix Magath, when a barnstorming second season-half and 54 goals from forward duo Grafite and Edin Dzeko brought the championship shield to the modestly-sized Lower Saxony city for the first time. A multitude of players, and not a few coaches, have come and gone since then but thus far under Dieter Hecking's season-and-a-half stewardship, things have been moving unequivocally in the right direction.
The arrival of from FC Bayern last summer was followed during the winter break by another huge coup, with fast-rising Belgian star signed up from Chelsea FC. They constitute two major pillars of a powerful new midfield for Hecking, who appears to have settled on 4-2-3-1 as his formation of choice. In addition, Ivan Perisic - at the club the same length of time as the coach - is back to the form that enticed Borussia Dortmund to sign him from Club Brugge in 2011 and, like Croatian compatriot Ivica Olic, followed up on a fine club campaign with some impressive performances at the World Cup finals in Brazil.
Youngster has meanwhile progressed so spectacularly he earned his first senior call-up for Germany in May and with long-time Werder Bremen favourite Aaron Hunt also now on board, Wolfsburg have creative options aplenty in the middle of the park. Up front, Bas Dost is well on the road to recovery after a campaign blighted by injury and the Dutch striker is likely to have some company soon with Hecking making no bones about the fact that “we're still looking for a striker”.
Money matters aside, one of the former Nürnberg supremo's most notable achievements has been the gelling of his all-star ensemble into a team with real backbone. Last season, the Wolves managed to ward off defeat no fewer than eight times after going 1-0 behind, turning six of those deficits into victories. “That just shows we never give up, or lose faith in our ability to win a game,” said Allofs. For Hecking, too, “it's a quality in itself to be able to come back from 1-0 down so often. The team can only be hugely complimented for that.” Should they continue to improve at the rate they did last season, Wolfsburg can expect plenty more plaudits, and not only from the coach, to come their way in the none too distant future.