FC Bayern München are once again the team to beat at the top - © © DFL DEUTSCHE FUSSBALL LIGA
FC Bayern München are once again the team to beat at the top - © © DFL DEUTSCHE FUSSBALL LIGA

New season promises intense battles at every level

The 54th season of the Bundesliga gets up and running on Friday evening, with FC Bayern München kicking off the defence of their title at home to SV Werder Bremen. That match sees Carlo Ancelotti take his league bow on the touchline for the defending champions, who also have young midfield sensation Renato Sanches fresh in the ranks – one of two Portuguese Euro 2016 winners new to the German game, alongside Borussia Dortmund's left-sided specialist Raphael Guerreiro. Meanwhile, the Bundesliga also welcomes back one of its most effective all-time strikers in Mario Gomez, now leading the line for VfL Wolfsburg.

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Ancelotti is looking forward to the challenge of coaching in "one of the top leagues in Europe. It's on the same level as the English Premier League and Spanish Primera Division." The 57-year-old former Italy international is tasked with securing Bayern's fifth straight Bundesliga title for starters but, in contrast to some of his counterparts elsewhere, he is by no means anticipating a one-horse race as "the competition is too strong for that."

Despite the summer arrival of World Cup-winning centre-back Mats Hummels from arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge is likewise settling in for a long, hard domestic campaign. "Dortmund pose the biggest threat to us, but Bayer Leverkusen are also very strong," the Bayern chairman reflected – adding he was "very optimistic about the Bundesliga as a whole. There are a few clubs in good shape now. I think we're in for a really exciting season.”

For their part, Dortmund have had to absorb the departure of star midfield duo Ilkay Gündogan and Henrikh Mkhitaryan as well as that of skipper Hummels. On the upside, they have recouped prodigal son Mario Götze from Bayern as well as snapping up his fellow 2014 World Cup final supersub André Schürrle from Wolfsburg. Having labelled Bayern "nigh-on unbeatable" after their acquisition of Hummels and Sanches, BVB CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke has gone back on the offensive more recently, warning that, “If Bayern München ever get the feeling they can afford to take a time-out, we'd like to be there for it.”

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A sentiment also now shared by Leverkusen, who have beefed up their own squad with Germany international striker Kevin Volland from TSG 1899 Hoffenheim and 1. FSV Mainz 05 midfield enforcer Julian Baumgartlinger. Bayer's immediate priority is to close the gap on Dortmund as, despite finishing directly behind them in third last season, "an 18-point deficit was clearly too much," sporting director Rudi Völler concluded. Like many a pundit, Völler views FC Schalke 04, Borussia Mönchengladbach and VfL Wolfsburg as the other three teams most likely to be contesting the race for UEFA Champions League places.

Schalke have lost star prospect Leroy Sané to Manchester City but there is a real sense of change in the air under the new management team of sporting director Christian Heidel and head coach Markus Weinzierl. Even renowned former Dortmund coach Jürgen Klopp, now at Liverpool FC, has felt moved to remark that, "I know no BVB fan wants to hear it, but I've a feeling Schalke could really do something."

Mönchengladbach are looking to build further on last season's excellent fourth place. Granit Xhaka has also left for the Premier League but in the returning Christoph Kramer, the Foals have acquired a holding midfielder of World Cup-winning stature. “We have to be targeting a place in Europe again,” sporting director Max Eberl confirmed. His counterpart at Wolfsburg, Klaus Allofs, is thinking along similar lines. The Wolves finished down in eighth last time out and Allofs' bottom line is brief and to the point: "We don't want to experience another season like that."

Well-funded top-flight debutants RB Leipzig are meanwhile being widely touted to maintain their rapid march towards the real heavyweight class. Saxony's new kids on the Bundesliga block are making no bones about their medium-term pretensions to European football. Fellow promotees SC Freiburg have no such plans for the moment. "The aim now is to stay up," head coach Christian Streich made clear almost as soon as his charges had sealed the Second Division title.

Survival is likewise the name of the game for the two sides who came up in 2015, and each defied the odds to stay afloat last season. Both head into the campaign with a new coach in the touchline zone: Norbert Meier at SV Darmstadt 98, and Markus Kauczinski at FC Ingolstadt 04.

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