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By ESPN Staff
Aug 4, 2006

Bundesliga builds on World Cup

BERLIN, Aug 4 (Reuters) - After a summer enjoying the delights of a superbly-organised World Cup, German soccer fans now have the added bonus of looking forward to an exciting Bundesliga season which kicks off next Friday.

Although Bayern Munich start as the overwhelming favourites to win a third consecutive league title, the championship race might be closer than usual although most of the challengers will realistically be looking to secure a European places.

Bayern have lost midfielders Michael Ballack to English champions Chelsea and Ze Roberto, who could be on his way to Turkey, but they also poached the best available talent from their rivals and should, in theory, have little trouble winning their seventh domestic crown in nine years.

'We're quite content to be in the roll of favourite, we want to defend our titles,' said Bayern coach Felix Magath, who has won back-to-back Cup and League doubles in the last two seasons.

Bayern, who kick off their season with a home match against Borussia Dortmund on Friday, bolstered their squad by buying Hamburg SV defender Daniel van Buyten for a reported 10 million euros and Germany striker Lukas Podolski, named the World Cup's best young player, from relegated Cologne for a similar amount.

'It's going to be harder to win the championship this season than it was last year,' said Bayern's sporting director Uli Hoeness. 'Dominating the league is not our aim. We've got a number of young players and will need time to integrate them.'

Werder Bremen, who finished a distant second to Bayern last season, and third-place Hamburg SV are expected to again emerge as the main challengers.

Bremen, champions in 2004, finished last season unbeaten in their last seven matches -- which included a 3-1 win over Bayern. They travel to Hanover for their season-opener on Sunday while Hamburg are at home to Armenia Bielefeld.

Bremen were top scorers in the league with 79 goals last season but lost ageing playmaker Johan Micoud to Girondins Bordeaux although they have brought back young striker Mohamed Zidan, who was on loan to Mainz 05.

Germany striker Miroslav Klose, the top scorer in the World Cup finals with five goals, was also top scorer in the league last season with 25 goals and along with Croatian partner Ivan Klasnic, will again pose a major threat.

Schalke 04 and Bayer Leverkusen won UEFA Cup spots and have the potential to play a role at the top of the table this season. Dortmund and Hertha Berlin are also capable of surprises.

WORLD CUP EFFECT

Germany's relative success in reaching the semi-finals at the World Cup when many predicted a far earlier exit should have a positive effect on the domestic game.

Germany coach Juergen Klinsmann, who stepped down after the finals, introduced an entertaining attacking style of play and some coaches have vowed to copy the formula.

The enthusiasm from the World Cup has spilled over into ticket sales with clubs reporting record demands this summer with some 358,000 season tickets already sold.

But at the same time, the Bundesliga with its comparatively modest wages and lack of glamour, has lost a number of its top talent and most entertaining players.

Aside from Brazil's Ze Roberto, who has yet to finalise a move to a new club, and Ballack leaving Bayern, Czechs Tomas Rosicky and Jan Koller have moved from Dortmund to Arsenal and AS Monaco respectively, Bremen have lost Micoud, Bayer Leverkusen have sold Bulgaria's Dimitar Berbatov to Tottenham Hotspur and Marcelinho has left Hertha Berlin for Trabzonspor in Turkey.

'The clubs in other leagues simply pay better,' Hoeness said when asked why no players from leagues such as Italy or Spain transfer to the Bundesliga.

'Those from warmer climes would have to deal with snow and ice so they stay put. But we were lucky the World Cup weather was so good. Some may now think it's always like that here.'

By Erik Kirschbaum