Bundesliga season predictions
Bayern has been quiet on the transfer front but should still repeat as champion
Leverkusen has best squad since '02, when it reached Champions League final
Struggling Hannover 96 could be hard-pressed to avoid relegation
The Bundesliga's 48th season kicks off on Friday night, when defending champion Bayern Munich meets 2008-09 winner VfL Wolfsburg, now coached by Steve McClaren. Here is a (moderately) educated guess as to how the 18 teams might finish -- subject to some last-minute wheeling and dealing, naturally:
Last year's finish: 1st
Key additions: Toni Kroos, Breno
Key losses: None
It's neither original nor particularly daring to tip Bayern for the title, but it's usually right: The German heavyweight has won 17 of the last 30 championships. Unusual restraint in the transfer market -- playmaker Kroos and Brazilian defender Breno are not new recruits but loan returnees -- will not reduce the dominance of Louis van Gaal's side. The Bavarians have easily the best squad in the league, some weakness in defense notwithstanding.
Last year's finish: 4th
Key additions: Michael Ballack, Domagoj Vida
Key losses: Toni Kroos
A lack of experience and staying power cost Leverkusen dearly in the last two seasons. Ballack, out to prove a point after losing the Germany captaincy, and a bunch of promising recruits like Croatian U21-defender Vida should address these deficiencies. Manager Jupp Heynckes has an array of attacking options, including international striker Patrick Helmes, who will significantly boost Bayer's goal tally after missing most of last season with a serious knee injury. This is probably the best Bayer team since 2002, when it advanced to the Champions League final.
Last year's finish: 6th
Key additions: Heiko Westermann, Gojko Kacar, Jaroslav Drobny
Key losses: Jerome Boateng, Marcus Berg
"Die Rothosen" (The Red Trousers) were frustrated in their attempts to sign Ibrahim Afellay (PSV), cashed in on Boateng and might yet lose exciting Dutch winger Eljero Elia to Juventus. There are also doubts about manager Armin Veh's ability to make one of the league's most difficult set of characters perform as a unit. In terms of individual talent, however, Hamburg has more quality than its rivals for a Champions League spot; defender Westermann and midfielder Kacar, in particular, are great buys. A lack of European action will further benefit the team and should reduce the amount of injuries.
Last year's finish: 3rd
Key additions: Marko Arnautovic
Key losses: Mesut Özil
Bremen needs to secure either Wesley (Santos) or Hatem Ben Arfa (Marseille) to make up for the loss of Özil. On its day, Thomas Schaaf's team is devastating going forward but it's also too open at the back to realistically challenge for the title. Arnautovic, described as "Zlatan Ibrahimovic Mark II" by the German press, has lived up to only the negative half of his reputation so far. The Austrian's poor attitude threatens to upset the cozy Werder togetherness.
Last year's finish: 5th
Key additions: Shinji Kagawa, Robert Lewandowski
Key losses: Tinga, Nelson Valdez
Manager Jürgen Klopp has had a productive offseason. Japanese World Cup midfielder Kagawa looks like a very shrewd buy and Valdez a clever sale. Borussia will pick up plenty of points with its high-energy pressing football and try to add more possession to the mix. But an inability to break down deep-lying opponents will make further progress difficult. Klopp, wary of a tough opening schedule, will settle for another finish in the top five.
Last year's finish: 8th
Key additions: Arne Friedrich, Simon Kjaer, Mario Mandzukic, Cicero
Key losses: Obafemi Martins, Christian Gentner
The capture of highly rated Danish defender Kjaer struck a blow for the whole Bundesliga. Securing Friedrich, Germany's unlikeliest World Cup hero, should also prove good business for McClaren. If the Volkswagen-owned club were to sign Brazilian playmaker Diego from Juventus as well, it'd really be in a position to challenge for third spot. But there is a fear that the club might yet lose Edin Dzeko, and the Bosnian striker is said to be unhappy with McClaren's new 4-2-3-1-system.
Last year's finish: 2nd
Key additions: Raśl, Christoph Metzelder, Sergio Escudero
Key losses: Marcelo Bordon, Rafinha, Kevin Kuranyi, Gerald Asamoah
An implausible run to second spot in Felix Magath's first season in charge in charge will be almost impossible to emulate. Schalke, like many past Bundesliga teams, will find it hard to adjust to the dual demands of the Champions League and domestic football. The arrival of Real Madrid icon Raśl has galvanized the Royal Blues' supporters, but wholesale changes at the back have left Magath three or four players short of a genuine top team. Trading in Heiko Westermann for the injury-prone Christoph Metzelder looks like one high-profile deal that might not work out.
Last year's finish: 6th
Key additions: Johan Audel, Philipp Degen
Key losses: Jens Lehmann, Aleksandar Hleb, Sami Khedira, Roberto Hilbert
The Swabians tend to start poorly and finish strongly. Manager Christian Gross needs to bring more stability to the team but can't expect too much of his new recruits. New sporting director Fredi Bobic, a former Stuttgart striker, has struggled to add significant quality so far. Khedira's class and the madcap excellence of keeper Lehmann will be sorely missed.
Last year's finish: 11th
Key additions: Tom Starke, Peniel Mlapa
Key losses: Timo Hildebrand, Per Nilsson, Maicosuel, Wellington
Hoffenheim was hampered by arguments between manager Ralf Rangnick and general manager Jan Schindelmeiser last season. Key staff members were replaced after Schindelmeiser's departure, but Rangnick managed to keep his most important players from defecting. A fully functioning Vedad Ibisevic is expected to find his feet again after a season in post-injury wilderness. But it'll be interesting to see whether the club's billionaire benefactor, Dietmar Hopp, will be content with mid-table respectability.
Last year's finish: 10th
Key additions: Theofanis Gekas, Georgios Tzavellas, Habib Bellaid
Key losses: Christoph Spycher
With the ambitious Michael Skibbe in charge, Frankfurt has made significant progress. A preseason win over Chelsea has excited the supporters, who are also happy that the club has invested intelligently. Skibbe has added depth to the squad and is on course for another comfortable finish. Eintracht will never be the most exciting team to watch but is highly organized and adept tactically. The return of Greek striker Ioannis Amanatidis, who was out with a knee injury for most of the last campaign, is a massive bonus.
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