BERLIN (AP)Fans are back but the fundamental question remains the same as the Bundesliga season begins Friday.
Who can stop Bayern Munich?
The Bavarian powerhouse has won an unprecedented nine consecutive German league titles and looks likely to complete a decade of domination.
”The chase is on. The team knows that the others have no great interest in seeing us at the top for the 10th time in a row. They’ll do all they can to get us down,” said Bayern chairman Oliver Kahn, who does not expect the challengers to be successful.
”If we deliver on our potential, we’ll be champions again,” Kahn said. ”The team has shown than it’s always capable of surpassing itself.”
Last season’s closest rival, Leipzig, finished 13 points behind Bayern last season, while Borussia Dortmund was 13 points adrift the season before that. It’s hard to see either team maintaining a season-long challenge again, while the likes of Borussia Monchengladbach, Bayer Leverkusen, Eintracht Frankfurt and Wolfsburg will have to address their own inconsistencies before they can break into the top three. All the teams have new coaches in charge.
Supporters are also a novelty as limited numbers are allowed back in stadiums after a season in which they were largely excluded due to the coronavirus pandemic. The opening weekend will be uncharacteristically loud as up to 25,000 spectators are permitted in some stadiums. Smaller stadiums can have up to 50% capacity.
Germany’s rate of new COVID-19 infections – which has been picking up again in recent weeks – will determine spectator numbers as the season continues.
Cologne has already tightened its rules. Fans with at least a negative test result can attend its season-opening game against Hertha Berlin on Sunday, but for future games only fully vaccinated fans or those who have recovered from COVID-19 can attend.
Bayern starts its record-extending title bid at Monchengladbach on Friday. The defending champions have a new coach in Julian Nagelsmann, poached from Leipzig to replace Hansi Flick, who cut short his tenure to take over the Germany national team.
The 34-year-old Nagelsmann enjoyed great success with Hoffenheim before confirming his credentials at Leipzig, which he led to the Champions League semifinals in his first season, then a German Cup final and second place in the Bundesliga is his next.
French defender Dayot Upamecano also moved from Leipzig to Bayern after the team met the 22-year-old’s buyout clause of 42.5 million euros ($50 million).
Bayern also signed English defender Omar Richards on a free transfer from second-division Reading, but otherwise it’s been a quiet summer of activity for the league’s richest club.
David Alaba, Douglas Costa, Javi Martinez and Jerome Boateng have all left the club, while other players including goalkeeper Alexander Nubel have been farmed out on loan.
Kahn said the pandemic was having an adverse effect on the club’s finances.
American coach Jesse Marsch has replaced Nagelsmann at Leipzig, arriving from sister club Red Bull Salzburg and continuing the path of transfers between the clubs backed by the energy drinks manufacturer.
Marsch looks to benefit from familiar face Dominik Szoboszlai’s return to fitness as the Hungarian striker scored on his injury-delayed debut in a 4-0 win at Sandhausen in the German Cup on Saturday. Szoboszlai joined from Salzburg in January.
Leipzig also signed Portugal striker Andre Silva from Bundesliga rival Frankfurt, meaning goals should not be a problem for Marsch’s team.
Dortmund also has a new face in charge in former Monchengladbach coach Marco Rose, who will have to do without English star Jadon Sancho, who joined Manchester United in the offseason.
But Dortmund still has Erling Haaland and will do all it can to keep the strong Norwegian striker for at least another year. Haaland started the season with a hat trick in the German Cup on Saturday.
Traditional heavyweights Werder Bremen and Schalke were relegated last season, reducing the number of big names competing in the top division. Promoted Bochum and Greuther Furth will hope to make the most of their time in the spotlight.
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