Spare a thought for Bayern Munich – always the bridesmaid, never the bride during the 2011/12 season. Losses in the German Cup final and Champions League final, coupled with a second place Bundesliga finish meant plenty of tears were shed. Those Bayern Munich players who represented Germany at Euro 2012, including Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mario Gomez and Thomas Mueller, got more of the same as the Germans crashed out to Italy in the semi-final, just as they looked set to give Spain a scare.
Much of the pain has been caused by upstarts Borussia Dortmund and livewire boss Jurgen Klopp. Dortmund have won back-to-back Bundesliga titles, setting a new league record with 81 points last year and beating the mark established by Bayern Munich themselves. This year, an even tenser rivalry is brewing as Dortmund chase a third straight title and Bayern Munich go all out to wrestle back Bundesliga control.
It sets the stage for a thrilling campaign, just don’t expect Klopp to embrace the tag of favourites. He has already gone out of his way to play the underdog card and pile the pressure and scrutiny on Bayern Munich boss Jupp Heynckes. “Bayern have another great opportunity to finish top this season. There are a few other teams who stand a chance of winning it, such as ourselves, Schalke, Leverkusen or Stuttgart. We want to qualify for the Champions League again. It is as simple as that”, insisted the Dortmund manager.
The loss of key man Shinji Kagawa – snapped up by Manchester United – could be one reason for Klopp’s slightly less optimistic outlook, but other stars such as attacker Robert Lewandowski and defender Mats Hummels remain, and the unrelenting work ethic will continue to be a feature of their play. Last year, the Ruhr giants were slow out of the gates but barely put a foot wrong from then on. This year, they can afford no such generosity to the rest of the pack if they want another victory party in May.
Bayern Munich have made no secret of their intent to knock Dortmund off their perch, opening the chequebook to usher in more talent. Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic, who blossomed at Euro 2012, has arrived from Wolfsburg, while exciting Swiss talent Xherdan Shaqiri has been plucked from Basel. Experienced striker Claudio Pizarro has also returned to the club. These new faces add to a star-studded core featuring Manuel Neuer, Lahm, Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Schweinsteiger, Mueller and Gomez. No wonder Klopp sees the Bavarians being the pacesetters.
But write off Dortmund at your peril. Klopp thrives on beating the odds and making fools of the doubters. Adding attacking midfielder Marco Reus from Borussia Monchengladbach, as a replacement for Kagawa, was a shrewd move, while Hummels and Mario Gotze are expected to continue their development.
The recent German Supercup gave the first indications of how tight the title race might be this year. Bayern Munich edged it 2-1, taking the first step to banishing the ghosts of last season, but Dortmund will come back stronger. Klopp was quick to berate the poor defending that cost his team the game and has demanded improvement before the Bundesliga campaign begins.
The scoreline meant more for the Bavarians, given their struggles against Dortmund, and it provided a timely lift. Heynckes admitted: "Overall we deserved to win, even if it was a hard fought victory. Psychologically, it was good that we won. We were very well organised before the break and our discipline was great.”
But this was just a dress rehearsal for the fierce title scrap ahead. Though Schalke, Bayer Leverkusen and Stuttgart, among others, may feel otherwise, a two-horse race looks the likeliest prospect, especially since Dortmund were crowned champions last year 17 points ahead of third place and 21 points ahead of fourth. A loose comparison might be the battle between Manchester City and Manchester United in England which has left the other big clubs on their heels.
The Bundesliga may not earn the headlines that the Premier League and La Liga command, but any football fan would be wise to keep a close eye on events in Germany this season. Will Dortmund clinch a famous three-peat or will Bayern Munich’s strength put them back on top? Only time will tell.