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In the final preview of the 2011-2012 German Bundesliga season, we'll finish our preview of the three teams likely to be fighting for one of those elusive European places. Borussia Dortmund have their eye on repeating as champions while Hoffenheim and Hamburg claw their way to a Europa League spot.
TSG 1899 Hoffenheim
Since their amazing 55 point campaign in their first Bundesliga season in 2008-2009, Hoffenheim has had two straight finishes in the low 40s. They have two solid forwards in Ryan Babel and Vedad Ibišević. Newly aquired forward Zimbabwean Knowledge Musona looks to be a very tidy new signing for new manager Holger Stanislawski. Defender Fabian Johnson joins the club from an unsuccessful few years at Wolfsburg. He'll be hoping to regain the form that saw Wolfsburg buy him from 1860 Munich in 2009. The club was able to keep captain Andreas Beck at the club after a summer full of transfer rumors that he was leaving the club. Beck's an outstanding player in the back, and he and Johnson could be a solid pair of defenders for the club. Tom Starke isn't the greatest goalkeeper, but he gets the job done in net for them. Yes, I realize that this pick is questionable at best, but I think I'm putting my faith in Stanislawski bringing a change of culture to the club and they'll get closer to one of those European places.
Fans of German soccer were treated to a treat last season every single time that Dortmund stepped on the pitch. Every great teams starts in the back, and Dortmund has the best defense by far in the division. Starting in the net with the excellent Roman Weidenfeller, Dortmund's back four will set the tone for every match they're in this season. Chris Löwe, Mats Hummels, Neven Subotic and Łukasz Piszczek form one of the most elite backlines in Europe. Dortmund only lost one of the key components (if not THE key component) to the championship winning side in Turkish midfielder Nuri Şahin. Şahin made the move to Real Madrid during the summer, and manager Jürgen Klopp brought in Nürnberg midfielder İlkay Gündoğan to replace him. Gündoğan's ability to step in and replace Şahin will be important to the club. Şahin was the direct link from the defenders to the attack. Gündoğan has the potential and the talent around him to make the step up in class, and it will be important for him to do so if Dortmund has plans to retain. He'll be paired in the middle with club captain Sebastian Kehl or Sven Bender. You'll be hard-pressed to find a better collection of attacking midfielders on any team in the world than what they have in Dortmund. The starting trio of Mario Götze, Shinji Kagawa and Kevin Großkreutz are good enough in their own right, but then you add Jakub Błaszczykowski, Antônio da Silva, Moritz Leitner and new signing Ivan Perišić to the group and they are amazing. Their depth at forward will be tested at the beginning of the season with Lucas Barrios set to be out for a month so expect to see Robert Lewandowski and even Mohamed Zidan running the show up top. Klopp's ability to hang on to almost this entire team throughout the summer is nothing short of spectacular. Those not yet introduced to this talented Dortmund team will get a rude awakening in the UEFA Champions League this season.
Hamburg spent the summer seeing a ton of players coming and going. The players leaving the club include Ruud van Nistelrooy, Jonathan Pitroipa, Piotr Trochowski, Ze Roberto, Joris Mathijsen and Frank Rost. Since Frank Arnesen was announced as the club's sporting director in the spring, he's made it a point to bring young athletic players to the side. Michael Mancienne and Jeffrey Bruma leave Chelsea and join a defense featuring Heiko Westermann, Dennis Aogo and Dennis Diekmeier. Hamburg has the ability to play a quick, attacking trio of attacking midfielders in Eljero Elia, Änis Ben-Hatira and the Son Heung-Min. Midfielder Per Ciljan Skjelbred is joining the club on August 3 from Rosenborg, and he should add some depth to their midfield. It appears that Mladen Petrić will be the lone forward up top for them. He's out of contract at the end of the season and so far he and the club have failed to come to an agreement. Having a "hungry" Petrić patrolling up top can only be good for Hamburg. In reserve they do have Peru international Paolo Guerrero. Guerrero is coming off an excellent Copa America where he finished as the leading goalscorer with 5 goals. This is a talented Hamburg side, and they should be pushing for a European place by season's end.
The last two days have been spent taking a look at the club that will be fighting relegation and the clubs that will be more comfortable at mid-table. The remaining group are the ones fighting for Europe. With the extra UEFA Champions League spot coming to the Bundesliga, it now means that seven clubs will be taking part in European competition in 2012-2013. The clubs that finish in the top four will be the Champions League, while the next two will be in the Europa League. The third Europa League spot will go to the club that wins the 2011-2012 DFB Pokal (German Cup). If one of the top 6 clubs win the cup, then the third Europa League spot goes to the team that finishes in seventh. This is the first part covering Bayer Leverkusen, Schalke 04 and Bayern Munich.
Leverkusen finished second last year edging out Bayern Munich for the final automatic Champions League spot. It will be their first appearance in the Champions League since a Round of 16 sighting in 2004-2005. Defender Sami Hyypiä decided to retire, but he is going through the process to obtain his coaching badges to return to the club. The other key component that they lost was midfielder Arturo Vidal. The saga that was selling him this summer was exhausting. Without going into too many details here, Leverkusen refused to sell him to league rival Bayern Munich and sent him to Juventus in Italy. Losing Vidal is going to cause some pain in that midfield, and Lars Bender is going to need to play at an elite level to fill that void. Leverkusen's biggest signing this summer is easily André Schürrle from Mainz 05. Schürrle was amazing for Mainz last year finishing with 16 goals and 4 assists. Look for him to add some more spark to the Leverkusen attack this season. Michael Ballack is in the final year of his contract with the club and will need a great year for Leverkusen to repeat their finish from last year. Unfortunately for Leverkusen they're going to be going into October without starting goalkeeper Rene Adler. Adler is out with a right knee injury. The club will be turning to David Yelldell in the meantime and hope that he can provide a stopgap until Adler returns.
FC Schalke 04
Last season for Schalke was a disaster. There's no other way to describe it really. They finished only four points out of the relegation places. The one saving grace is that they put together a great run and were able to win the DFB Pokal. Talking about Schalke's summer transfers starts with Manuel Neuer. The transfer tango that Schalke did with Bayern Munich finally came to an end when the club sold the goalkeeper to Bayern for €18 million. Schalke went right out and purchased Ralf Fährmann from Eintracht Frankfurt. Fährmann was excellent last season on a bad team, and he's already shown his worth in the DFB Supercup win against Borussia Dortmund. Centerback and captain Benedikt Höwedes anchors a defense that has a lot of potential for the upcoming season. I myself am a huge fan of Kyriakos Papadopoulos and think he can be a really special player for them. Christian Fuchs returns from his loan spell at Mainz and will add some depth and skill to the Schalke backline. Jermaine Jones, Jan Moravek and Lewis Holtby are all returning from successful loan spells. Schalke have one of the deepest midfields in the league, and manager Ralf Rangnick is going to have to find the right formula to get this team playing up to their potential. Jefferson Farfán was outstanding for the club last year and won't be in the squad at the beginning of the season due to an injury he picked up in training for the Copa America. Rangnick appears to favor Dutch striker Klaas Jan-Huntelaar as his target forward. With another month left in the transfer window, we'll have to wait and see what happens with Spanish legend Raul. Rumblings have been coming out for days now that Raul is unhappy and wants to return to Spain. Raul was excellent for Schalke last year, but he isn't vital to their success. At the end of the year we could look at Schalke and talk about how they snuck in and won the league or how they fell on their face and finished outside of the European places.
FC Bayern Munich
One thing is going to determine the season that Bayern Munich has and it is the health of Arjen Robben. The Dutch winger missed the entire first half of last season. In just 14 matches, Robben scored 12 goals and had 8 assists. If Bayern can keep Robben healthy enough for 23-25 starts this season, they could probably begin to turn some of their draws into wins. Thomas Müller's continued development playing underneath the superb Mario Gomez will be a joy to watch this season. Last year he finished with 12 goals and 11 assists. Gomez scored 28 goals last season in the Bundesliga and 39 goals in all competitions. If the front four of Gomez, Robben, Müller and Franck Ribery stay healthy this year, we could see a ton of goals put into opposition nets. The board tried their damnedest to bring Arturo Vidal to the club, but they were unable to complete the transfer. The big question now is who pairs with Bastian Schweinsteiger in the middle of the park? Is it Luiz Gustavo or Anatoliy Tymoshchuk? I think manager Jupp Heynckes might be leaning toward Gustavo. The Manuel Neuer transfer saga was finally completed and all the supporters would love having the world's best goalkeeper in the net, correct? Wrong. A group of supporters vehemently decried his signing and protested loudly at the Ligapokal friendly tournament in Mainz. I would imagine that a few good performances by Neuer will slowly begin to silence their complaints. For the last several years weakest part of the Bayern team has been the defense. Louis Van Gaal refused to address this last summer, but the Bayern board have been sure to address it this time. Genoa right back Rafinha was brought in to the club, and the decision was made to move Philipp Lahm to left back. Lahm is a world class fullback at either position, and he solves the left back problem. The club also purchased Manchester City centerback Jérôme Boateng. He is expected to step right in and be a starter from day one. The two starting centers are likely to be Boateng and Holger Badstuber. This doesn't begin to install fear in the mind of any offense, but it is a better combination than Martin Demichelis and Daniel Van Buyten.
Yesterday we previewed the four clubs looking at the immediate threat of a relegation battle, so today we'll follow up with a look at the clubs that should finish "Mid-Table". There are eight teams in this group, and they will be divided in two groups of "Upper Mid-Table" and "Lower Mid-Table".
The 96ers come into this Bundesliga season with dual focus. For the first time in their history they have European competition in addition to their annual Bundesliga campaign. With the club competing on three fronts (including DFB Pokal), their depth, or lack thereof, will be greatly tested. The summer signing that stands out is former Schalke 04 left back Christian Pander to a one year contract. If Pander can stay healthy, and that's a big if, then Hannover could find themselves with another elite fullback opposite right back Steve Cherundolo. Their other two signings, holding midfielder Henning Hauger and forward Artur Sobiech at much needed depth at those two positions. A lot will be expected from forwards Mohammed Abdellaoue and Didier Konan Ya to score goals as there's not a lot of goals from the rest of the side. A successful season for Hannover will be a solid run in the Europa League and an upper mid-table finish in the Bundesliga.
1. FC Nürnberg
Nürnberg spent the last few months of last season with Mainz 05 for the final Europa League position. Though they faded down the stretch, the experience will be good for a fairly young club. The big test for the club this season will be how to replace the players that have left this summer. İlkay Gündoğan has moved to Borussia Dortmund, Andreas Wolf has moved to Werder Bremen, Mehment Ekici (on loan from Bayern Munich) has moved to Werder Bremen and Julian Schieber has returned to parent club Stuttgart. The loss of Ekici will be difficult to replace as he was the creative midfielder of the side. The club has brought in defender Timm Klose, defensive midfielder Manuel Zeitz, and forwards Alexander Esswein and Tomáš Pekhart. I think Pekhart could be an excellent buy for the club if he continues to develop.
Wolfsburg's season last year was such a disaster, the only way it could be worse is if they were actually relegated this year. I look at the signings that Felix Magath has made this summer, and I really like every one of them. Christian Träsch, Marco Russ and Patrick Ochs add some needed depth to a defense that includes some very good players in Simon Kjær, Arne Friedrich and Marcel Schäfer. The signing of Croatian forward Srđan Lakić is a great one for Wolfsburg, and I expect him to score close to a dozen goals for them. Koo Ja-Cheol moved to the club last January and looks to be a solid midfielder for them. Bringing veteran midfielder Hasan Salihamidžić back to the Bundesliga is a great move and adds experience and a winning mentality to the midfield. Even though they were unceremoniously dumped from the DFB Pokal by fourth division club RB Leipzig, I believe that Magath will have the club solidly mid-table this season.
The start to Stuttgart's season will be difficult with injuries to defenders Ermin Bičakčić and Georg Niedermeier along with the sell of Christian Träsch to Wolfsburg. The club also brought in defender Francisco "Maza" Rodríguez from PSV Eindhoven. The club is expecting Maza to be a stabilizing presence in the defense moving forward along with Serdar Tasci. Goals should come more often now with the return of Julian Schieber from his loan spell at FC Nürnberg. He'll join a rotation with forwards Cacau, Pavel Pogrebnyak and Martin Harnik. Expect good things out of midfielder Zdravko Kuzmanović as they move forward throughout the season.
SV Werder Bremen
I really like Bremen's attacking midfield options with Mehmet Ekici, Marko Marin and Aaron Hunt. The addition of Ekici should free up Marin and allow him to have a more free role in the attack. Claudio Pizarro will be out for a few matches to being the season, so the forward rotation will be limited to Sandro Wagner and Marko Arnautovic. They'll need a more productive season from Arnautovic this year to move further up the table. The addition of Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Andreas Wolf to the defense add depth to a defense in need. Mikaël Silvestre will start the year injured, and both can start if needed. Torsten Frings saw his contract expire at the end of the season, and the club chose not to resign him. Replacing his steadying presence in the midfield will be key for Bremen if they are to succeed at all.
1. FC Köln
One thing people not familiar with the Bundesliga know about Köln is that it is the club of Lukas Podolski. Aside from his three year stint at Bayern Munich, Podolski has been at Köln his entire career. It made sense when he went back in 2009 that he assume the armband and the captain of "his" club. Last season the club managed to finish 10th which was their best finish since 2000-2001. The club decided to bring in a new manager with Copenhagen manager Ståle Solbakken taking the position. Solbakken named defender Pedro Geromel captain. Köln supporters will hope that this does not impact Podolski as he managed 13 goals and 7 assists last season. His partner up top Milivoje Novakovič had an outstanding season banging in 17 goals last year. The addition of Sascha Riether from Schalke should strengthen the defense, but it will still be tough for the club to repeat last season's performance.
1. FSV Mainz 05
Mainz started off in unbelievable form last season taking 24 points from their first 9 matches. They began to fade as the year progressed, but the players put together another nice run at the end of the season to take the final Europa League place. The club is losing arguably the two most important players to last season's success in Lewis Holtby and André Schürrle. Holtby is returning to Schalke from his loan and Schürrle was sold to Bayer Leverkusen. Schürrle was unbelievable for Mainz last season tallying 15 goals. Forward Sami Allagui partnered well with Schürrle, and he'll be hoping to do the same with Anthony Ujah. He is their new forward signing from Lillestrøm. Mainz will struggle to recreate the brilliant soccer seen from them last season and will likely finish toward the bottom of the table.
Of the two promoted clubs, Berlin appear on paper to have the better squad to stay in the Bundesliga this season. They've made three very shrewd signings in goalkeeper Thomas Kraft, defender Maik Franz and midfielder Andreas Ottl. Kraft will be the number one for the club and add Bundesliga experience (though minimal) to the position. Ottl is an extremely talented player and pairing him in the middle with Raffael will add to a dynamic midfield. Gustavo Ramos had a great 2.Bundesliga season last year. If he can bang in goals in the top flight, Berlin will be well on their way to staying in the first division for the season.
As we approach the kick off of the 2011-2012 German Bundesliga season, I decided that it was time to have a preview of the upcoming season. This year aims to be one of the most exciting in history as the Bundesliga has earned four UEFA Champions League places.
Your season preview will be broken down into three categories: Relegation Contenders, Mid-Table Clubs and Champions League Contenders. Today we'll start with the relegation Contenders.
1. FC Kaiserslautern
During the summer Kaiserslautern sold forward Srđan Lakić to VfL Wolfsburg. Lakić was the club's leading scorer last year with 16 goals (the next closest was 5). This was the equivalent to one-third of the club's total goals scored last year. That's a very difficult amount of offense to replace in one transfer window. Even with the outstanding Christian Tiffert running the midfield, FCK will struggle to score goals this season. they've brought in Itay Shechter from Hapoel Tel Aviv, but time will tell if Shechter can transfer his goal scoring record (better than 1 goal per two matches in Israel) over to the Bundesliga.
Augsburg won automatic promotion to the Bundesliga last season and will need a great performance to stay up this year. They were able to hold on to their two leading goalscorers from last season in Nando Rafael and the 22 year old Stephan Hain. They've brought in defender Dominic Peitz from Union Berlin to add some depth to the defensive corps that led the 2.Bundesliga last season in allowing the fewest goals. Augsburg have also signed Lorenzo Davids from NEC in the Dutch Eredivisie. Davids is the cousin of famous soccer player Edgar Davids.
Freiburg finished 9th in the Bundesliga last season which was their best finish since the 2000-2001 season when they finished 6th. The club relied on the goalscoring form of Senegalese forward Papiss Cissé. He finished second in the golden boot race to Mario Gomez with 22 goals. This was the most goals scored by an Africa in the Bundesliga since Tony Yeboah scored 20 in 1993. With other clubs now having seen Cissé at his top form for an entire season, one would think that they have worked at ways to force someone other than Cissé on Freiburg to beat them. When you take a gander at Freiburg's roster, you see that chances are pretty good if you stop Cissé you stop Freiburg.
Gladbach survived the relegation playoff last season and will likely find themselves right there in the thick of things again this year. They haven't made any major signings this summer, but I think the signing of Copenhagen defender Oscar Wendt could go a long ways to helping their survival in the top flight. With Wendt, Dante, Roel Brouwers and Filip Daems patrolling in front of Marc-André ter Stegen, the Foals may actually have a Bundesliga-surviving-quality defense. It will be interesting to see exactly how long the club is able to hold on to midfielder Marco Reus this year. Reus has been looked at by bigger clubs for the last two seasons, and he is a prime candidate for a club looking for a dynamic midfielder. Scoring goals will likely be hard to come by for the club relying on Igor de Camargo and Mohammadou Idrissou, but the club will hope Manchester United loanee Joshua King brings them some luck for the coming season.
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