Cologne - The 2014/15 Bundesliga season kicks off in appropriately high style this Friday evening with defending champions FC Bayern München getting proceedings underway on home turf against VfL Wolfsburg, fifth-place finishers last term.
Champions' injury woes
A capacity 71,000 crowd at the Allianz Arena and a massive global audience following the game live in more than 200 countries are all but guaranteed a pulsating encounter between Germany's established top dogs and one of their most ambitious pursuers.
Not long back from their ground-breaking summer tour of the United States, a somewhat makeshift Bayern side were thoroughly outplayed by Borussia Dortmund as they went down to a . Far worse than the defeat for head coach Pep Guardiola however was the cruciate ligament injury suffered by Javi Martinez which has sidelined the versatile Spanish centre-back for months to come. He is not Bayern's only injury concern either, with Bastian Schweinstieger facing weeks out of action due to the recurrence of a patellar tendon problem in his left knee.
The Munich outfit's other FIFA World Cup-winning heroes are meanwhile lagging somewhat behind in their own preparations, having returned to the fray unavoidably late following their exertions in Brazil. Two of them, Mario Götze and Thomas Müller, did at least move a step closer to match fitness with a goal apiece as Bayern got back to winning ways in Sunday's at SC Preußen Münster.
Guardiola pronounced himself “satisfied” with a “serious” display from his charges against their third-flight opponents while stressing once again that his side “clearly still need more time”. One more-than-satisfied member of the Bayern ranks meanwhile was Holger Badstuber, on the back of his first competitive appearance for the best part of two years. The Germany defender's delight would doubtless be magnified should he now get a slice of the action against Wolfsburg as well.
The visitors are under no illusions that this is the toughest possible opening test of their credentials as they seek to maintain their own recent renaissance under head coach Dieter Hecking and sporting director Klaus Allofs. In the wake of the Wolves' own DFB Cup first-round penalty shoot-out victory at SV Darmstadt 98, Hecking said he was “confident we'll put in a good team performance” in Munich, even though he had nine players missing for the meeting with the Bundesliga 2 newcomers, among them “a few potential starters on Friday”.
First-choice keeper Diego Benaglio and midfield linchpin Luiz Gustavo, at any rate, are on course for a comeback, although Max Grün did a sterling job in Benaglio's stead, saving two spot-kicks to spare VfL's blushes. While Hecking voiced his overall satisfaction with the application and physical condition of his side, in which former SV Werder Bremen stalwart Aaron Hunt and Atletico Madrid defensive midfield loanee Josuha Guilavogui both made their competitive debuts, he conceded that “there were a few situations where we didn't press home our advantage”.
The coach, who has added further punch to his frontline with the signing of former Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner, is aware there will be no room for any shortcomings against Bayern: “We need to be more focused going forward. You're not going to get many chances in Munich and we'll have to make the most of those that come our way.”
BVB heading in the right direction
Saturday evening's late (18:30 CEST) kick-off provides the other standout fixture of Matchday 1, with last season's league runners-up Borussia Dortmund taking on the side who finished fourth, Bayer 04 Leverkusen. Buoyed by their Supercup success, Jürgen Klopp's men are determined to lay down an early marker in their own bid to reclaim the title they won in 2011 and successfully defended the following year.
After an injury-plagued campaign last time out, Dortmund are heading very much in the right direction on the personnel front. At the back, Neven Subotic has returned to the fray and is ready to resume his central defensive partnership with World Cup winner and new BVB skipper Mats Hummels. Playmaker Ilkay Gündogan has meanwhile returned to light training after a year out with a wearisome back problem, but perhaps the best news for Klopp at the moment is in the attacking department.
Marco Reus is fighting fit again following the nasty ankle injury that scuppered his chances of playing a starring role in Brazil, while Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have been in superb early form on the cup front. With new signings Ciro Immobile and Adrian Ramos still easing their way into the Dortmund system as well, the loss of Robert Lewandowski to FC Bayern may not prove so detrimental to Borussia's prospects after all.
New man in charge
Visitors Leverkusen have a new coach at the helm in Roger Schmidt, a highly-rated tactician whose preferred approach is not a million miles removed from that of Klopp. Bayer, who have won two of their last four games at the Signal Iduna Park, have also beefed up their ranks in key positions. In central defence, Kyriakos Papadopoulos has signed on loan from FC Schalke 04 while at the sharp end of the action, former Nürnberg marksman Josip Drmic adds a considerable scoring threat up front.
The Leverkusen signing in the main spotlight however will undoubtedly be their new number 10 Hakan Calhanoglu, who exploded onto the Bundesliga scene at Hamburger SV last season. Dortmund certainly need no reminder as to the 20-year-old Turkey international's ability, given that he planted a 45-yard free-kick straight into their net in a 3-0 Hamburg win in February.