The Bundesliga’s back for its fiftieth season, to widespread relief in Germany after the disappointment of Euro 2012. The Golden Jubilee promises the usual mixture of unpredictability, fantastic atmosphere, madcap antics and oodles of goals - 2.86 strikes per game on average in 2011/12 made it the most prolific top competition for the 22nd year running.
Dortmund and Bayern will slug it out at the very top but nine other teams can harbour ambitions to get at least into the Europa League; Europe’s most upwardly mobile big league tends to throw up at least one big surprise outfit each season. Here’s the low-down on what’s expected on matchday 1.
Borussia Dortmund 1.25, the draw 5.35, Werder Bremen 10.00
Last year’s double winners are back for more, insists self-declared "insatiable" manager Jürgen Klopp after they managed to hold onto their big players (with the exception of Shinji Kagawa). Marco Reus is justifying his budding superstar status and the only concerns are the absence of the tireless ball-winner Sven Bender in midfield and right-back Lukasz Piszczek’s tight hamstring; the Pole is expected to make this game, however.
Werder have added quality in right-back Gebre Selassie and completely rejigged their attack but a 4-2 defeat by third division Preußen Minister in the Cup has hinted at their chronic frailty at the back. Thomas Schaaf’s side have shifted 1.75 goals per game over the last two years - and the frenzied atmosphere in the Signal Idunal Park will surely make this a high-scoring and ultimately uncomfortable evening for them, too.
Greuther Fürth 7.65, the draw 4.25, Bayern Munich 1.42
Greuther Fürth's first ever Bundesliga game pits them against the team with the biggest point to prove. Fürth are expected to change to a more defensive 4-5-1 system in the wake of their sobering Cup exit against third division Offenbach but Bayern, runners-up in all three competitions last season, should still have too much for them, even if Ribéry (flu) doesn’t recover in time. Swiss winger Xerdan Shaqiri, the Frenchman's replacement, has looked sharp in pre-season, as has new striker Mario Mandzukic, who’s in for the injured Mario Gomez. Worries over Bastian Schweinsteiger’s mysterious fitness struggles persist - he won’t start - and youngster Emre Can is inexperienced in the left-back slot. But Bayern must be backed in this one.
Hamburger SV 2.15, the draw 3.35, 1. FC Nürnberg 3.25
Both teams crashed out of the Cup against lower-division sides in pretty embarrassing fashion. Neither of them have decent centre-backs. But the visitors can at least rely on respectable midfield protection from Balitsch and Simons, whereas HSV manager Thorsten Fink seems unable to find his best line-up. Quite a few supporters are worried that the northerners will find themselves at the wrong end of the table again, as sporting director Frank Arnesen’s rebuilding process is yet to bear any fruit. If Nürnberg can withstand the early pressure, a 0-0 or narrow, nervy away win wouldn’t be a huge upset.
Borussia Mönchengladbach 2.00, the draw 3.40, TSG Hoffenheim 3.65
Gladbach are hurting from a 3-1 defeat by Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League play-offs. With defender Dante, midfielder Neustädter and forward Reus having departed, they have lost their spine over the summer, and manager Lucien Favre is unhappy with the lack of cohesion in his side. The Foals should nevertheless be able to run away with this match. In new boy Luuk de Jong they have proven fire-power up front, while maddeningly inconsistent Hoffenheim come into it on the back of a humiliating 4-0 defeat against fourth division (!) Berliner AK. Coach Markus Babbel is beginning to sound exasperated with his undisciplined squad before the season has even started in earnest. Home win.
SC Freiburg 2.55, the draw 3.35, Mainz 05 2.65
Hard-running, high-pressing Freiburg are a formidable side, especially at home, but they will meet their match in Mainz. The key question for Thomas Tuchel’s visitors will be whether they can compensate the loss of striker Mohamed Zidan, who played a major role in keeping them out of trouble with seven goals in the second half of 2011/12. At least Hungarian forward Adam Szalai is back after lengthy injury problems. For Freiburg, the absence of mainstay midfielder Daniel Caliguri could prove costly. This looks like an attritional, low-scoring affair that Mainz might just shade.
Augsburg 2.10, the draw, 3.25, Fortuna Düsseldorf 3.50
Augsburg have to survive a second season among the big boys without manager Jos Luhukay, who went to Hertha. His successor Markus Weinzierl has enjoyed a good pre-season but the absence of leading forward Jan Mölders (broken ankle) will pose problems. In Aristide Bancé, they have added physical power to their squad, but it remains to be seen whether the Burkina Faso press as effectively. Newly-promoted Düsseldorf will live off the euphoria; the loss of their two most important players, midfielder Maximilian Beister and striker Thomas Bröker will make staying up very difficult, however. Augsburg are favourites to win this early "six-pointer".
Eintracht Frankfurt 3.00, the draw 3.30, Bayer Leverkusen 2.30
A 3-0 defeat by second division Aue in the Cup has hardly dampened the feel-good factor in Frankfurt - most supporters are convinced that Armin Veh’s newly-promoted side will manage to stay up fairly comfortably. Canadian striker Oliver Occean, in from Greuther Fürth, can unnerve defences, but the much more talented Leverkusen are expected to take full advantage of the host’s vulnerability at the back, where centre-back Constant Djakpa is missing due to suspension. Away win.
VfB Stuttgart 2.05, the draw 3.40, VfL Wolfsburg 3.45
While the Swabians have been saving money and had to make do without any big-name additions this summer, Wolfsburg once again pulled out all the stops in the transfer market to get into the Champions League. Felix Magath has assembled one of the league’s tastiest attacks. Bas Dost and Ivica Olic will take some stopping, especially if their provider, the returning playmaker Diego, can replicate his Atletico Madrid form and get along with the notoriously tetchy coach Felix Magath. Stuttgart looked solid in the 2-0 win over Dynamo Moscow in midweek and have no serious injury problems but Wolfsburg should have enough to get a draw here.
Hannover 96 2.85, the draw 3.30, Schalke 04 2.40
Mirko Slomka’s 96 have evolved from a side that used to edge out narrow wins. Now they’re much more fluid and expansive at the front but also more open at the back, as the 5-3 away win to Wroclaw in Europa League qualification showed. Ex-Manchester United striker Mame Diouf is missing with an ankle injury but the bigger worry is keeping a clean sheet against a classy Schalke team who love to play on the counter. The Royal Blues have kept key striker Klaas Jan Huntelaar and are well equipped to challenge for a Champions League place again. They should prevail in what promises to be the most entertaining match of this round.