Battle for the 'other' Bundesliga
[Disclaimer: The following piece does not include the words "Pep", "Bayern", "Klopp" or "Dortmund". So if that's what you're looking for, skip this article. Well, okay. There is one single "Dortmund", so maybe you want to stay around.]
Anyone who has followed the Bundesliga coverage of the past weeks -- months, really -- can be forgiven for thinking that the German league is the smallest in the world because it consists of only two teams.
However, the fact that the two Champions League finalists are grabbing 90% of all headlines (and will in all likelihood also grab the majority of points) does not mean there is nothing to look out for in the other Bundesliga, the one that has sixteen teams.
There is, for starters, a very interesting Schalke side. My fingers are hovering over the keyboard right now, tempted to add "that could, one day soon, become the new Dortmund". But of course they would hate that connection at Schalke, so let's not compare them to anyone and just say that their years of laborious and somewhat directionless activity in the transfer market appear to be over.
It's not improbable that Schalke's first team will include five young and talented German, or at least German-born, players -- Marco Höger (age 23), Joel Matip (21), Roman Neustädter (25), Christian Clemens (21) and Julian Draxler (19). Then there are two veterans. One of them is the goalkeeper, Timo Hildebrand. The other one is the captain, Benedikt Höwedes. (While Höwedes is still young, he's already closing in on 150 Bundesliga appearances.)
Finally there is a speedy foreign international in right midfield (Jefferson Farfan) and a proven, versatile striker from abroad upfront, Dutchman Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. This is a team that could go places and with a bit more finesse and style in front of the back four, they would resemble that other side, the one we don't want to mention here, even more.
This touch of class, though, is already waiting in the wings. Schalke have signed Leon Goretzka (age 18) from Bochum, a player whom many experts consider as big a talent as Mario Götze and whose best position is defensive midfield, because he combines ball-winning skills with playmaking abilities. If this is the year Draxler really breaks through and becomes a superstar -- which is what many people expect and why he's turned down offers from Real Madrid and Manchester City in the off-season -- then Schalke should be the best team in this other Bundesliga.
Last year, that trophy went to Leverkusen. It seems unlikely, though, that Bayer can retain it. The club was lauded for smart moves on the transfer market, primarily for grabbing Hamburg's young South Korean Heung-Min Son, but they also failed to sign quite a few players they had targeted, for instance Kevin de Bruyne, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Sokratis Papastathopoulos, not to mention that losing Dani Carvajal was a real blow. (Real Madrid exercised their buy-back option to re-sign the right-back.) There are still doubts over the squad's depth, especially upfront.
Many people have pointed out that the worst-case scenario for Leverkusen is a long-term injury to Stefan Kiessling, who just cannot be adequately replaced. However, it's probably enough to cause Bayer problems if Kiessling simply fails to repeat his monster season. Last year, he scored or created 35 or 36 goals, depending on which source you consult. Realistically, you have to expect about ten goals less this season and Leverkusen will need someone who steps into this breach.
Finally, there's the coach. For sixteen months, Sami Hyypiä was one half of a successful duo. Now he has to cope without Sascha Lewandowski, who wanted to return to his old job and work in Bayer's youth set-up. Of course Hyypiä was the marquee name in that duo, but Germans saw and heard much more from Lewandowski, if only for language reasons. Only time will tell if Hyypiä has what it takes to be the sole man in charge.
If there are too many doubts surrounding Bayer, then who can stop Schalke from winning the "other" Bundesliga? The smart money could be on Mönchengladbach. Last season, Borussia conceded 49 goals, more than even Nürnberg or Mainz. Yet the biggest new signings -- the Brazilian Raffael and Max Kruse from Freiburg -- are offensive players. The reason is that last year's defensive problems were very uncharacteristic for Gladbach under coach Lucien Favre.
The club's reasoning seems to be that Favre will weave his magic again and restore the team's stability at the back. If this happens, Gladbach are to be reckoned with. In part because last year's big signings Luuk de Jong and Granit Xhaka are too talented not to break through at last. In part because the volatile Raffael has always performed for Favre (first at Zurich FC, then at Hertha) and his presence will help young Patrick Herrmann, who should finally win his first full cap for Germany this season.
What about the dark horse, I hear someone yell. If a team that won the league (the entire league, that is, not just this "other" league) only four years ago can be considered a dark horse, then Wolfsburg might play that role. Under new business manager Klaus Allofs and new coach Dieter Hecking, the Wolves are quite openly trying to shed their "corporate club" and "moneybags" images -- and it looks as though they are succeeding.
A few years ago, nobody would have expected Wolfsburg to field highly promising homegrown talents, but now Under-20 international Robin Knoche, who joined the club when he was 13, could be a starting player, while 19-year-old Maximilian Arnold should see plenty of action. Add to this various tried-and-tested veterans like playmaker Diego or defender Makoto Hasebe and you have a promising side.
Oh, by the way: the smallest league in the world is the Isles of Scilly Football League. It has indeed only two teams.