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Bundesliga: A top-four challenge

It hasn't been a particularly long break for the European Champions since their crowning moment, but we can still expect Bayern Munich to dominate the Bundesliga again. The fight for the other European spots will be a major focus.

The Bundesliga gets back underway this weekend after a healthy 13-week summer break, a testament to Germany’s ability to come out of lockdown earlier than many other European nations, and to the league’s 34-game format. But Covid-19 has, of course, had a huge impact on German football – which is why the beginning of the 2020-21 season looks so similar to the year that preceded it.

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The headline news is that financial restraints resulting from the pandemic have severely hindered even the biggest clubs in Germany, handing a key advantage to traditional powerhouse Bayern Munich. The treble winners, whose season ended just over three weeks ago with a Champions League final victory over Paris Saint-Germain, are rightly heavy favourites to lift the Bundesliga title for a ninth season running.

Borussia Dortmund are again their closest rivals, not least because the other two clubs with title aspirations – RB Leipzig and Bayer Leverkusen – have each lost their star player to Chelsea. As expected, Covid-19 has accelerated and exaggerated trends already established: a consolidation of power among the elite and a talent drain from mainland Europe into the lucrative Premier League.

Can anyone challenge Bayern?

Hans-Dieter Flick has performed an extraordinary job in just a few short months as Bayern manager. When he arrived on an interim basis in early November the club were embroiled in their worst crisis in a generation, the loss of Frank Ribery and Arjen Robben in the summer looking symbolic of the end of an era of Bayern dominance.

Flick didn’t just steady the ship, he revolutionised the club. The former assistant to Joachim Lowe showed a tactical vision and dexterity that almost instantly restored Bayern as one of the most sophisticated clubs in Europe, playing a high-intensity pressing game in the mould of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool: powerful, suffocating and blisteringly quick in transition.

From 14 December, Bayern won 28 and drew one of their final 29 matches of the season in all competitions. They simply steamrollered everyone in sight, an unstoppable force on their way to an historic second treble. On the basis of the last eight months - in which the likes of Serge Gnabry and Alphonso Davies have emerged, while Thomas Muller and Joshua Kimmich have been reborn – Bayern could well become the first club in history to win back-to-back trebles.

That pretty much rules out a title challenge this year, particularly in such a tough summer for their rivals. Dortmund wrapped up Jude Bellingham from Birmingham City for £25 million, but the young midfielder, despite scoring on his debut in the DFB-Pokal this week, is one for the future.

Even if Jadon Sancho stays at the club, which is looking increasingly likely, Lucien Favre’s side will know last year was their big chance to lift the title. For now, Dortmund need to be content with a strong domestic showing and a runners-up medal.

Bayern to make it nine.

Three into two: who will lose the Champions League race?

Assuming Dortmund comfortably make the top four, it is a straight race between RB Leipzig, Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Monchengladbach for the final two lucrative Champions League spots.

Julien Nagelsmann is building something special at Leipzig, but his project is under threat after Timo Werner’s departure to Chelsea. Their energetic striker’s hard pressing, ability to drop into the number 10 position to build attacks, and to spin in behind was the most vital cog in the manager’s rapid vertical football. Not only did he score 28 league goals (35% of the club’s total), but Werner was always the key man in the Leipzig transition from defence to attack; the fulcrum of almost every move.

What’s more, their inability to perform in the Champions League without him suggests a drop-off in form this season. Leipzig beat Atletico Madrid 2-1 in a tight quarter-final before badly running out of steam in the semis, losing 3-0 to Paris Saint-Germain with a lacklustre performance in which Werner’s absence was glaring. The pandemic has prevented Leipzig from reinvesting the money, although forward Hwang Hee-chan is an astute signing from RB Salzburg. He notched up 11 goals and 12 assists in Austria last season, and scored three times in the Champions League.

Leipzig are a safe enough bet for third, not least because their outstanding manager Nagelsmann can be trusted to find a way to play without Werner. That leaves Leverkusen and Monchengladbach, a race won by the latter last season by just two points. Monchengladbach are an exciting young team with a front three of Breel Embolo, Marcus Thuram and Alassane Plea, that tormented opposition defences last season, and yet manager Marco Rose has been unable to strengthen further this summer.

By contrast, Leverkusen have attempted to replace the departed Kai Havertz - a major loss - with Patrick Schick, signed from AS Roma after scoring 10 Bundesliga goals last season on loan at RB Leipzig. Peter Bosz ought to be capable of improving on Leverkusen’s league performance following a surprisingly haphazard 2019-20. After all, this is a young side with plenty of room for growth: natural development alone should see youngsters Moussa Diaby, Leon Bailey, Paulinho and Edmond Tapsoba improve.

Dortmund, Leipzig and Leverkusen to make the top four.

Cloudbet's outright winner's odds*

Bayern Munich1.13
Borussia Dortmund6.94
RB Leipzig17.8
Borussia Monchengladbach35.7
Bayern Leverkusen50.5
Hertha Berlin100
Hoffenheim100
Wolfsburg120
Schalke149
Eintracht Frankfurt149
Werder Bremen149
FC Koln199
Freiburg199
VfB Stuttgart199
Mainz 05199
Augsburg199
Union Berlin248
Bielefeld248

*Cloudbet odds at the time of writing; subject to change

Ones to watch

Stuttgart are back: Five-time Bundesliga champions Stuttgart are back, and hoping to put a rollercoaster few years behind them. After 38 straight years in the top flight they were relegated in 2016, promptly got promoted, finished seventh, then went back down again. They finished runners-up last season to return once more to the Bundesliga – hopefully, this time, to consolidate.

Can Werder Bremen halt the decline?: Another historic German club, four-time winners Werder avoided a first relegation since 1980 by the skin of their teeth, beating Heidenheim on the away goal rule in the relegation play-off. Amazingly, they decided to keep head coach Florian Kohfeldt, while top scorer Milot Rashica appears to be on his way to Aston Villa. Another tough season beckons.

Andre Silva at Frankfurt: The arrival of Leroy Sane and Bellingham has stolen the headlines in Germany, but arguably the most exciting signing is striker Andre Silva, who joins mid-table Eintracht Frankfurt from AC Milan for £8 million. The Porto graduate was once tipped to be a world star, but he never really settled at Milan after his £35 million transfer in 2017.

Difficult second season for Union Berlin: The fairy-tale promotion, and then survival, of Union Berlin was the feel-good story of the 2019-20 Bundesliga season. They overcame a miniscule budget and small stadium to give the nation’s capital its second representation in the top flight – and they went on to record an historic 1-0 win over Hertha Berlin in November. Union comfortably stayed up last year but have been unable to spend over the summer, which points to a difficult second season and probable relegation.

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