The winter hiatus is over and the 2016/17 Bundesliga is back. Last season's Bundesliga 2 champions SC Freiburg got the action underway against their top-flight counterparts FC Bayern München on Friday evening in a game symptomatic of what is shaping up to be the most unpredictable campaign in years.
Bayern starting the year in pole position may equate to business as usual but it's all change when it comes to the teams queuing up behind them – not least in the form of second-place RB Leipzig, just three points adrift of the record champions at the midway stage of their maiden Bundesliga campaign. But what are the chances of the new boys from Saxony maintaining that role as Bayern's biggest rivals through to the finish?
“Leipzig have done very well so far and every respect to them for that. But the team I'm most concerned about, without a doubt, are Borussia Dortmund,” Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge noted at the DFL Deutsche Fußball Liga New Year reception: “We can only be happy they're twelve points behind us at the moment. They've been a bit unfortunate with injuries.”
In reality, that double-digit deficit makes a belated title bid by last season's runners-up look somewhat unlikely. Leipzig, themselves eight points clear of third-place TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, remain by far the Munich club's most plausible challengers as it stands. “Leipzig are opponents who have to be taken seriously. I'm glad they're there and they're going to be hanging around at the top for years to come,” Bayern's once-and-once-again president Uli Hoeneß reckons.
The new force on the Bundesliga block proved their 2016 exploits had been no fluke when they started 2017 with a 3-1 win at home to fourth-place Eintracht Frankfurt. That was a top game very much in the 'surprise' category, given that the visitors themselves only survived relegation by way of a late play-off goal last season. Hertha and still-unbeaten TSG 1899 Hoffenheim complete the unanticipated quartet currently vying with Dortmund for UEFA Champions League football next season.
Seventh-place 1. FC Köln are meanwhile harbouring justifiable hopes of making the European stage for the first time since 1992 while their near-neighbours Bayer 04 Leverkusen – widely tipped as title dark horses heading into the season – will be hard-pressed now to claim the Champions League berth to which they have become accustomed in recent years, despite beating Mainz on Matchday 17.
Further back, FC Schalke 04 are another heavyweight outfit punching considerably below their weight so far. In a bid to boost their flagging fortunes down the season home straight, the Royal Blues have signed Germany international central defender Holger Badstuber on loan from Bayern and current Bundesliga 2 top scorer Guido Burgstaller from 1. FC Nürnberg, with the latter making an immediate impression against FC Ingolstadt 04.
SV Darmstadt 98, three points adrift at the foot of the standings, are looking to new coach Torsten Frings to effect an urgently needed turnaround. Hamburger SV, who rallied late in the year to haul themselves out of the bottom two, are meanwhile trying to change things from the top down with Heribert Bruchhagen and Jens Todt now respectively installed as chairman and sporting director. For the Bundesliga's only ever-present club, retaining that status is once again the overwhelming priority as another calendar year of league action rumbles into gear.