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By ESPN Staff

Bundesliga: Bayern ready for title defence

MUNICH, August 13 (Bundesliga) - Bayern Munich will once again be the team to beat as Europe's best-attended league, the Bundesliga, kicks off on Friday.

The reigning champions are favourites to retain their crown, but it will not be an easy ride for the Bavarian giants as they search for their 21st league title.

Jurgen Klinsmann has replaced Ottmar Hitzfeld at the helm, despite the Munich side securing the double last term.

The appointment of the former Germany coach is one of many changes amongst the top sides, with Schalke, Bayer Leverkusen, Hamburg and Borussia Dortmund all replacing their coaches in a bid to end Bayern's domination.

Werder Bremen boss Thomas Schaaf is a rare exception and, as he prepares for his 10th campaign at the Weserstadion, is by far the longest-serving coach in the Bundesliga.

One of the newest is Schalke boss Fred Rutten, who has arrived from FC Twente in Holland.

'I am really proud to be able to work in a great league with a very big club,' he said.

'Schalke and I go well together and I am certain that we can take some steps forward in the future. In football, anything is possible.'

Schalke have often been just a step away from their first Bundesliga title.

A stoppage-time goal on the final day of the season in 2001 cost them the title and two years ago they threw away a seemingly unassailable lead to allow Stuttgart to overtake them on the penultimate weekend of the season.

New signings Jefferson Farfan and Orlando Engelaar have raised the level of expectation in Gelsenkirchen.

Dortmund appear to be turning the corner and the 2002 champions hope the arrival of coach Jurgen Klopp can propel them back into the leading pack.

Klopp was the man who led Mainz to the Bundesliga for the first time in 2004 while his endearing style as a pundit for German television has made him a firm fans' favourite.

'The players are as crazy about football as I am and so it is no wonder that I get on so well with them,' he said. 'We want to make the fans enjoy football again.'

There is plenty of room for improvement in Dortmund after finishing 13th last year.

By contrast, Wolfsburg stunned the Bundesliga last season by finishing fifth and qualifying for the UEFA Cup a year after struggling against relegation.

Their success is typical of coach Felix Magath, who led Bayern to consecutive league and cup doubles and is focused on moulding the Wolves into genuine title contenders.

Magath has splashed out over 25 million euros on Italy's World Cup winners Andrea Barzagli and Cristian Zaccardo as well as talented former Bayern midfielder Zvjezdan Misimovic in an attempt to improve on last term.

'Wolfsburg are one of the title favourites,' admitted Cologne boss Christoph Daum, whose former club Bayer Leverkusen are also potential challengers.

Leverkusen, like Westphalian neighbours Dortmund and Schalke, changed their coach this summer with Bruno Labbadia replacing Michael Skibbe.

Labbadia's task in his first appointment in the Bundesliga will be to transform the club from a top-six side to serious title contenders.

Promising German striker Patrick Helmes and Brazilian playmaker Renato Augusto could help him achieve that objective.

Elsewhere, Martin Jol takes over from compatriot Huub Stevens in charge of Hamburg, who will be the first side to meet Bayern on Friday and lay out their own title credentials.

At the other end of the table, Energie Cottbus, Arminia Bielefeld and Bochum are favourites for relegation, but all three clubs have proven their resilience in recent years to remain in the top flight.

Newcomers Hoffenheim, Borussia Monchengladbach and Cologne would be happy to repeat this feat and maintain their Bundesliga status after promotion from the second division last season.


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