WOLFSBURG, GERMANY - JULY 02: Ivica Olic (C) during a VfL Wolfsburg training session on July 2, 2012 in Wolfsburg, Germany. (Photo by Oliver Hardt/Bongarts/GettyImages)
I haven't given you anything to chew on for a while, but this should make up for the delay: 2,000 words on the upcoming season in the world of German football, with news, predictions, and non-partisan commentary. This is NOT our team-specific preview for FC Bayern's 2012-2013 season. That will come along later, after watching them play a bit more (maybe even after the Liga Total! Cup). This is just a general overview of the DFB competitions and an opportunity to discuss the state of German football.
Let's start at the bottom ...
Three new additions to the 1. Bundesliga this year: SpVgg Greuther Fürth, Eintracht Frankurt, and Fortuna Düsseldorf. Fortuna earned promotion through the playoff, beating Hertha Berlin in a two-legged tie at the end of last season. A pretty good turn-around for them over the past few years: they had financial problems and were playing in the 3rd Liga a few seasons ago. Now they've been promoted back up the the 1. Bundesliga for the first time in 15 years. The city of Düsseldorf has a big rivalry with Köln, so it has to be especially sweet to the Fortuna fans to be up top while FC Köln has been sent down. On the field, they have a pretty international squad, with an Austrian, a Dane, an Angolan, a Brazilian, an Australian, a Korean, a Greek, and a Spaniard added to the normal complement of Germans. Not a ton of top-level talent, though, so manager Norbert Meier is going to have his hands full keeping them competitive week to week.
Unlike Fortuna, Eintracht Frankfurt are no strangers to 1. Bundesliga football. They've played most of their history in the top league, and are back now after only a one-year absence. German U21 'keeper Kevin Trapp was brought over from Kaiserslautern, who passed Eintracht going the other way. They also have Olivier Occéan, veteran of the Canadian national team. Perhaps slightly better odds for survival here, but it still wouldn't shock anyone to see them relegated, especially if they get off to a slow start. They open up at home vs. Leverkusen.
The final newly-promoted side is SpVgg Greuther Fürth. They not only won the 2. Bundesliga convinvingly last year, but they also advanced to the semi-final of the DFP Pokal, and only got bumped by Dortmund on a last second goal (this sentence is updated from an earlier error - see the comment section). If they play like they did last season, they probably have a better-than-even chance of survival. But, of course, nobody "plays like last season" - it's a new campaign every year, and anything can happen. They're also notable for their weird Irish-seeming theme (green and orange colors, clover-leaf on the crest), their charmingly no-frills stadium, and the fact that they're managed by former Schalke star Mike Büskens.
This is the part where I make bold predictions that turn out to be wildly off-base. Every year in the Bundesliga, it seems like at least one team outplays expectations and/or makes a pretty big leap to a much higher spot in the table. Sometimes several teams will do so, but there's almost always at least one.
Last year, I completely blew this pick, as I thought Wolfsburg was going to be the team to climb up the table and surprise everyone. They actually did improve pretty well, going from 15th to 8th between the 2010-2011 season and last year. But I missed the much bigger "big climbers" story - and, in hindsight, the one that was much more obvious: Borussia Monchengladbach, who went from relegation battlers to top 4 last year. I should have realized that BMG were always far better than what they showed in that 2010-2011 season, and that would improve immensely after having a whole summer to train under Lucien Favre's defensive scheme. Of course, everything always seems obvious after the fact.
I've done a lot of thinking about this, and there are several good candidates for the upcoming season. Bayer Leverkusen will be tough, especially with the addition of Philipp Wollscheid. They have a good shot to get into one of those Champions League spots. But a team climbing from 5th into the top 4 doesn't really qualify as a "big climber." In order for the pick to have any meaning, it has to be a bold prediction - either a team that was mid-table getting into the top 5, or a team that was flirting with relegation making huge strides and getting into the top half (or at least close).
Under that criterion, I'm going to swallow hard and make a possibly ridiculous pick: I like FC Augsburg to finish in the top 10. This is an unlikely pick, I know, because they actually seem primed for the sophomore jinx: a small team that gets promoted, rides their luck to a surprise survival year and a "feel good story," then comes crashing back to earth the next year as reality (and heavier expectations) set in. And clearly they aren't thought of as a traditional powerhouse.
At the same time, I think there are some factors working in the Auggies favor: they snagged Andreas Ottl to anchor their midfield, for one. Ottl never did enough to claw his way into the regular starting line-up at Bayern, but he's still a solid all-around defensive middie who is fairly strong, can tackle well enough and is pretty experienced. I also have my eye on Sascha Mölders, a German striker with good control and a nice nose for the goal. Check it out:
Augsburg also starts with a relatively easy schedule: they open at home vs. newly-promoted Fortuna, and have only one match against last year's top 4 in their first 10 matches. In the long run, everyone plays everyone twice, but it can be useful to start off with some winnable matches and generate confidence, rather than facing all the tough teams in the first few weeks and starting from an early hole (especially with a new manager).
Anyway, that's my pick for big climbers. I like Augsburg to get into the top 10, and to shrug off the sophomore slump with a good season. Let's move on before I talk myself out of it.
DOWN ON THE FARM
This may become a semi-regular feature this season, depending upon how much 2. Bundesliga news I can find. And this is shaping up to be a relatively star-studded season in the second circuit, with a few fairly big (or at least charismatic) teams fighting to get their way back to the top flight: Köln, Hertha B, TSV 1860, Bochum, and St. Pauli will all be plying their trade in the 2. Bundi.
Podolski is gone, but Köln still has a pretty deep roster and is an intimidating place for visitors to play. And 1860 finished with a respectable +16 goal differential last season, and finished the year strong, losing only once of their final six. They open in the Allianz two weekends from now, against newly-promoted Jahn Regensburg. I'm going to plead complete ignorance on those guys, but the internet tells me that they (Jahn Regensburg) beat Karlsruhe in the playoff to get into the 2. last year. Meanwhile, look how Karlsruhe has fallen - in the spring of 2008, they were not only in the 1. Bundesliga, but were flirting with one of the Europa League spots for a while. Now they're headed down to the 3.
Last year, there was a pretty well-defined tier at the top of the 1. Bundesliga: the first 4 teams were well above the next batch. BMG's late struggle opened up the door a tiny bit, but Dortmund, Bayern, Schalke, and BMG still finished 1-2-3-4, just as might have been predicted in January. This year, Dortmund and Bayern look just as strong, Schalke is a slight question mark (losing Raul, having to deal with Champions League in the schedule), but should still be a tough match for anyone, and BMG has big questions to answer with Dante and Reus both gone. A quick look at the clubs trying to claw their way into those lucrative top 4 spots:
A good bet to make some noise this year. I think Wollscheid will help them, and they finished last season on a good note (undefeated in their last 6). At the same time, they lost several starters from last year, and they're surprisingly non-formidable at home. The first month of the season should answer a few questions: Bayer Levs travels to Dortmund in week 3 and then hosts BMG in week 4.
Some big moves for these guys, as they picked up Nils Petersen on loan, Eljero Elia from Juventus, and Theodor Gebre Selassie, the Czech FB who played well in the Euro tournament. Losing Pizarro hurts them, though, and they also start with a tough schedule: at Dortmund, home vs. Hamburg, at H96. After 3 weeks, Werder could either be looking good with a few hard-earned points under their belt, or already in a big hole.
Big bet from the Wolves on Ivica Olic - they let Mandzu go and will give Olic the "front-man" role in their offense. I think that's a good bet, though - if Olic stays healthy, he's a 15-goal scorer at least, and his energy and stamina make him constant menace to opponent's back lines. They also bought Vaclav Pilar, who scored twice for the Czechs in the recent Euro 2012 tournament. For some reason, VfL seems very eager to snap up Eastern European players. These guys should definitely be in the discussion for Europa League spots; with a few breaks and good health, they could maybe even threaten for a spot in the top 4.
I'm not feeling these guys. They let Julian Scheiber walk, and they also lost Timo Gebhart, who I think was very under-rated. I might be biased against VfB, though, because pretty much the only time I see them is when they're playing Bayern, and Gomez (a former VfB star) just cuts them to ribbons for some reason. I see these guys dropping a bit from their 6th-place finish last year.
At the top, of course, is Borussia Dortmund. I hate to say it, but these guys are very formidable. Last year, they lost Goetze to an injury, but kept on rolling with Lewandowski, Kuba, and Kagawa picking up the slack. The loss of Kagawa is probably made up for by the addition of Reus, and their defense is still rock-solid. And, while I find him annoying, it's undeniable that Klopp has them motivated and on the same page - they love playing for him.
Can Bayern pass them? Of course we can - we have as much talent as anyone in the world, and I think we showed it in the last month of the CL last year (where, regardless of final scores, there wasn't a single club in the world that could stand toe-to-toe with us in the middle of the field). But Bayern absolutely needs to learn how to cut down on stupid mistakes. We have to figure out how to avoid getting undressed with the quick counter-attack; how to cycle through multiple sets and formations if our first attack isn't working, rather than just banging our heads against, the wall; and most importantly, how to avoid outplaying other teams for 90 percent of the match and then blowing it with a few seconds of carelessness.
But that's for another day - the team-specific preview will be up later this summer. For now, I hope everyone is as excited as I am for the upcoming Bundesliga season, which I think is going to be the most compelling and the most dynamic in Europe. As always, weigh in with any corrections or thoughts of your own, and thanks for reading.