Dortmund finally set to contend
The German football season is slowly starting for Borussia Dortmund and going in the right direction, initially. The black and yellows defeated a hapless Bayern Munich side in the Super Cup on Wednesday and progressed to the second round of the DFB Pokal with a 4-1 against 3. Liga side Stuttgarter Kickers on Saturday.
The Bundesliga starts next week, and for now positivity is all around Dortmund. The expectations are once again high, even with the departure of Robert Lewandowski to Bayern. The official targets set by the club for the 2014-15 term are the same as last year: a top-three finish in the Bundesliga, reaching the Champions League knockout stages and a deep run in the DFB Pokal, with a win being the ideal finish.
But will it finally be the year in which Borussia Dortmund can play a serious role in every competition without neglecting one? After BVB's double in 2012, a rather bitter Uli Hoeness grumbled, "I will only doff my hat when Borussia Dortmund manage to play [successfully] not only domestically but also on the European stage in one season." A quite unrealistic ask at the time, but BVB have continued their growth as a club since then and have made Hoeness' ask a more realistic one -- but let's all not get ahead of ourselves.
Short preseason and injuries
It doesn't mean Borussia has to win the treble now, but cutting down the points margin to the eternal title favourites, Bayern Munich, while blessing the fans with an enthralling and lasting Champions League adventure is in arm's reach.
As it looks, the beginning of the Bundesliga season will be the hardest part for der Ballspielverein, who might see themselves off to a rocky start. Bayer Leverkusen and VfL Wolfsburg are dramatically improving, while Schalke will be lurking around as always. The top six teams shall provide a more competitive scrap than the past year -- if early prognoses are to be believed -- so bad results might be more costly than last season.
Juergen Klopp had to juggle quite a bit to get all his players into gear for the upcoming missions. For instance, the players who participated at the World Cup, such as Roman Weidenfeller, Mats Hummels, Kevin Grosskreutz, Marcel Schmelzer, and Erik Durm all missed most parts of preseason.
It gets especially tricky for the new signings Ciro Immobile, Adrian Ramos, Ji Dong-Won and Matthias Ginter, who hardly get time to build chemistry with BVB's first team players.
But it's not only the World Cup making things difficult. As it happens in every football club, there are injuries to be dealt with. Marco Reus had a sooner recovery than expected, but also he missed parts of the preseason and will need time to find his form.
Same counts for Neven Subotic and Jakub Blaszczykowski, who both return from a long time off due to injuries, while Nuri Sahin is currently nursing a knee injury. He'll return next week. Ilkay Gundogan is still in rehab and won't be seen on the pitch before mid-September -- which we'll believe when it happens.
Ultimately, little preparation time and bugging injuries result in a backlog of form and team chemistry compared to other Bundesliga sides.
Only Bayern Munich have been hit harder by the above mentioned struggles, so a slim opportunity to build a gap might open up, but BVB fans shouldn't be surprised if the black and yellow bees need a few flaps to lift from the ground -- keeping in mind those are only worries for the first month and a half -- tops.
But even if BVB are off to a slow start, their accumulation of players should overcome early woes.
The additions of Ramos, Immobile and Ji to make up for Robert Lewandowski are maybe not as good measured on individual skill. But Jurgen Klopp obtained a few options he didn't have last year. Now he can use a two-striker system or bring a quality striker from the bench, if necessary.
Not only the new signings bring new hope. Jonas Hofmann, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are oozing confidence, as they had one season to settle into the side and should be able to unfold their true potential now. The Armenian, especially, is looking like a whole new signing as well. With the return of Reus and Blaszczykowski, the offensive midfield will pose a pacy threat of international caliber, and BVB won't have to rely on their strikers alone to score goals.
Ideally, come October, Gundogan, Nuri Sahin, Sven Bender, Sebastian Kehl, Oliver Kirch and Milos Jojic will all fight for the few spots in defensive midfield. It's up to Klopp to figure out the right mix of playmakers and destroyers to utilize. If he does that, the pressure within the team will bring the best out of everyone.
My favourite battle will be for the left-back position, though. Will the upcoming youngster Durm topple the veteran Marcel Schmelzer throughout the season, or will Schmelzer maintain his starting place? My guess is Durm will win this one in the end -- but eventually they will both get their fair share of playing time, since rotation is key on the demanding fullback position. Same goes for Grosskreutz and Lukasz Piszczek on the other side.
Sokratis or Subotic? Or rather Ginter? Hummels will feature as a regular in most games, given his undoubted qualities and his role as team captain. But it will be a nice little battle for the spot next to him and could cause some divided opinions on who's best-suited to play alongside Hummels.
Klopp's man-management skills will be more crucial than ever to maintain a happy family in his ranks. But more importantly, Dortmund are finally a squad worthy of contending as a top European force.
There are enough options for Klopp and his staff to rotate players without a loss of quality and still maintain BVB's high octane football. There's also enough depth and quality to deal with the eventual injuries and suspension that come along with a season.
For the first time, Dortmund have the squad and capacity to make a deep run in the Champions League, keep the Bundesliga title race interesting and perhaps make a splash for the German Cup. Maybe then Hoeness will doff his hat.