Cologne - The 52nd season of the Bundesliga, the league of the world champions, holds out the promise of being one of the most thrilling for years. FC Bayern München are chasing a hat-trick of top-flight titles and, as is almost invariably the case, go into the new campaign overwhelming favourites to finish top of the pile once again.
Promising start for Dortmund
That can be little cause for wonder, with Robert Lewandowski added to an all-star ensemble which includes five of the men who started for Germany in the . The signing from arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund of last season's Bundesliga top scorer brings a fresh dimension to a frontline which amassed a breathtaking 94 goals as Bayern stormed to the title in record-quick time last season, securing an unassailable lead in the standings by the end of Matchday 27.
All of which notwithstanding, Bayern have a real fight on their hands as they attempt to carry that level of dominance over into the new campaign. Their sizeable World Cup contingent are still playing catch-up as far as the pre-season preparations go, and for all his squad's unparalleled strength in depth, Pep Guardiola is once again faced with a personnel shortage in the deep midfield department in particular, not least after the versatile Javi Martinez joined Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thiago Alcantara on the early-season injury list.
On the early evidence of that Supercup summit, Dortmund are well placed to mount a serious assault on the top of the table from the off. Last season's Serie A top scorer Ciro Immobile and Hertha Berlin's prolific Colombian Adrian Ramos have been brought on board to plug the gap left by Lewandowski's departure but it was two of last summer's signings, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who stole the limelight against Bayern.
With a year in the Dortmund system under their belts, the Armenia and Gabon internationals now seem set to truly take the Bundesliga by storm. And with Marco Reus fit again and fully charged after the disappointment of missing out on the World Cup, Borussia once more have the look of serious title contenders; not least with Neven Subotic ready to resume his central defensive partnership with skipper Mats Hummels.
Schalke and Leverkusen aiming high
FC Schalke 04 have a couple of world champs of their own in Benedikt Höwedes and Julian Draxler, and head coach Jens Keller can be guaranteed to keep bringing through fresh graduates of the Royal Blues' internationally-renowned football academy. Much of the excited anticipation among Royal Blues fans is however focused further up the park, where Klaas-Jan Huntelaar now has new signings Sidney Sam and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting for company.
Meanwhile, Bayer 04 Leverkusen and VfL Wolfsburg are two more clubs with realistic ambitions to muscle their way into an automatic UEFA Champions League slot this season. Twenty-year-old playmaker and set-piece specialist extraordinaire Hakan Calhanoglu is Bayer's standout summer signing, with great things expected as well of the free-scoring Josip Drmic, snapped up from relegated 1. FC Nürnberg.
Perhaps the most intriguing new arrival at the BayArena however is highly-rated head coach Roger Schmidt, all set to make his German Bundesliga debut after guiding Red Bull Salzburg to a runaway title success in its Austrian equivalent. Dieter Hecking has already made his mark in the coaching hotseat at Wolfsburg and with Aaron Hunt, Sebastian Jung, Club Atletico de Madrid loanee Josuha Guilavogui and former Arsenal frontman Nicklas Bendtner all added to their already formidable ranks, the Wolves will undoubtedly be another team to watch over the coming months.
Paderborn join Bundesliga club
High among the eye-catching arrivals elsewhere is Borussia Mönchengladbach's loan signing of 21-year-old Belgian midfield prospect Thorgan Hazard from Chelsea. Fans of Hiroshi Kiyotake's silky skills can meanwhile still enjoy watching them in the Bundesliga after the Japanese playmaker swapped Nürnberg for Hannover 96. And Hamburger SV have secured the services of Pierre-Michel Lasogga for the longer term after the striker's impressive showing on loan from Hertha Berlin.
Away from the top-end tussle, the jostling for position in the mid- and lower reaches of the table looks guaranteed to unfold with an intensity arguably unrivalled in any other leading league. The two newly promoted sides will both be targeting mere survival for starters, for all the disparity of their backgrounds and resource-pools.
1. FC Köln, the first-ever Bundesliga champions, return to the top flight after two years hoping to gradually ease themselves into a new era as a force to be reckoned with under Peter Stöger. Elevation to the top flight by contrast came as something of a surprise to modest SC Paderborn – but the Bundesliga's 53rd debutants will nonetheless be giving it their all to try and ensure they are still part of the story when it's 53rd season rolls around next year.