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2014-15 Bundesliga season preview: Everyone's chasing Bayern Munich

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The Premier League does its best to convince us all that it is home to the best soccer in the world, but many refuse to buy into the hype. Instead, they seek out a different sort of game, one that sacrifices defense while flying flat out in attack. They're entranced by the way players are constantly drawn toward goal, seduced by the 3.16 goals scored per match. These fans are the ones seeking out the Bundesliga every weekend.

Germany's top flight may not provide a thrilling race for the title -- Bayern Munich captured it last season with seven games to spare -- but the weekly entertainment provided by nearly every match more than makes up for a close fight. Besides, the Bundesliga is willing to provide a myriad of other dramas: a newly promoted team challenging for the European places, a late-season slide from a seasoned Champions League side, ‘keepers that act like sweepers, and a playoff to avoid relegation. Talk about a last-gasp effort!

All this and goals, goals, goals. What's preventing you from tuning in for the first matchday? You don't even need a team to support -- in fact, it can be much more enjoyable to watch the Bundesliga without backing one particular horse. Just sit back and enjoy.

The fun starts Friday, August 22.

Augsburg

A pleasant surprise in last year's Bundesliga, Augsburg barely missed out on the Europa League, finishing eighth, just one point behind Mainz. One player who was instrumental in helping the squad rise seven spots above the previous season's finish was lightning-quick winger André Hahn, but he's now been sold to Borussia Mönchengladbach. To make up for the loss, Augsburg have brought in Tim Matavz from PSV Eindhoven, who had 58 goals and 25 assists in 154 Eredivisie matches, and German-American Shawn Parker from Mainz, with the young forward hoping to have the chance to make more of an impact at his new club.

Key Player: Halil Altintop

The Gelsenkirchen-born Turkey international may be 31 years old, but his 10 goals made him the second-most prolific scorer for Augsburg last season.  Now that André Hahn is off to Gladbach, Altintop needs to have another decent campaign if Augsburg are to avoid the relegation battle.

Bayer Leverkusen

Following a hot start in which they sat in 2nd for a good portion of the first half, Bayer 04 fell off hard when they went six games with only a point, ultimately leading to the dismissal of manager Sami Hyypia. They recovered nicely and pipped the final Champions League spot on the last day, but it was abundantly clear that a retooling was necessary.

Holding midfielder Emre Can departed for Liverpool as soon as the window opened, and Bayer countered by adding creative force Hakan Calhanoglu from Hamburger SV, as well as striker Josip Drmic, who scored 17 goals for relegated Nürnberg last season. All of this is in support of key man Stefan Kießling, who scored a low-for-him 15 goals in 2013-14. His scoring may not return to the top of the league as it was in 2012-13, but the addition of Calhanoglu and Drmic coupled with the continued development of Son Heung-Min should free up space for the 30-year-old to roam.

The addition of Red Bull Salzburg manager Roger Schmidt, who has drawn favorable comparisons to Dortmund's Jürgen Klopp, as well as the injection of fresh creative blood into the squad, has Bayer supporters feeling cautiously optimistic that they can take the next step this season. Their first litmus test, following a trip to Copenhagen for a Champions League playoff tie, will be their opening match against Dortmund at Signal Iduna Park. A positive result could well springboard them to an exciting season.

Key player: Son Heung-Min

With Kießling having run extremely hot and cold for his entire career and Drmic only having one excellent season under his belt, Bayer will rely on Son to be consistently great. He was Bayer's best attacking player last season, and he's the only one who never seems to disappear from games. At 22, with a year of Champions League football and a World Cup now under his belt, Son could be ready to make a step up and become a legitimate superstar.

Bayern Munich

Bayern Munich are the clear favorites to win the Bundesliga for the third year running, and it's going to take a combination of extremely unlikely events to prevent them from doing so. Borussia Dortmund, Schalke and Bayer Leverkusen will remain competitive, but none come close to the Bavarians in number of world class players or depth of talent.

Apparently, Bayern are so confident in their ability to dominate the Bundesliga that they're going to start integrating some of their teenagers into the first team. The development of Pierre Hojbjerg, Gianluca Gaudino and Julian Green might end up being more interesting than the play of their stars, at least domestically. The likes of Franck Ribéry, Arjen Robben and new arrival Robert Lewandowski will put on a show, but it might get less interesting after they lay a dozen or so beatings on lower opposition

The loss of Javi Martínez to injury hurts, but Pep Guardiola has stated that Bayern will enter the transfer market to replace him. Defensive depth is currently Bayern's only concern, but it's unlikely to prevent them from winning the title.

Key player: Philipp Lahm

As Bayern's most versatile player, Lahm is probably going to get moved around a lot this season, and the way he adapts to his different roles will be crucial to Bayern's success. He did well as a defensive midfielder last season -- a position he hadn't played before -- but this season, it'll be just one of four or five roles he plays.

Borussia Dortmund

An injury plagued 2013-14 season for Borussia Dortmund meant that FC Bayern won the title relatively unchallenged. Dortmund finished second, of course, but at one point in the season their entire back four from title winning campaigns in the 2011-12 and 12-13 seasons was out injured. Plus, their rivals had poached Mario Götze, the future World Cup winner, and Ilkay Gündogan missed the entirety of last season with injury. Dortmund fans have been waiting for the new season to kick off since sometime around last September.

Dortmund have been accused of being a selling club by many, losing the likes of Götze, Shinji Kagawa, and Robert Lewandowski the past few years, but the truth is the club had some financial problems and were simply looking for a way to remedy them. Now they've been able to bring in forwards Ciro Immobile and Adrián Ramos, and the permanent return of Nuri Sahin will be welcomed at the Signal Iduna Park.

Expect Jürgen Klopp's side to keep the clinical counterattack ethos going this season with the speedy Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Marco Reus on the wings, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan dictating play from his position in central attacking midfield in the high pressure 4-2-3-1. If this team can stay healthy, they'll likely make another deep Champions League run this season.

Key Player: Marco Reus

The German winger missed out on the World Cup victory due to an injury sustained in the final warm up game, but he will be back and leading the attack for the Schwarzgelbe. The subject of many summer transfer stories, Reus is staying at Dortmund (for at least the near future) and it's easy to see why many teams want him. A fast, tricky winger who can score as many goals as he sets up, he could start for any team in the world.

Borussia Mönchengladbach

The sixth place finishers in last year's Bundesliga, Borussia Mönchengladbach will be hoping for just a bit more this season.  As usual, their home form at Borussia Park was stellar, winning 11, drawing 3, and losing 3. However, their away form must be improved, as only 19 points were earned on the road compared to the 36 at home (W5 D4 L8).

Goalkeeper Marc André ter Stegen left for Barcelona, but Lucien Favre has brought in a more than competent replacement in former FC Basel man Yann Sommer. United States right back Fabian Johnson comes in from Hoffenheim and winger André Hahn was poached from Augsburg for just over €2m. Thorgan Hazard, younger brother of Chelsea's Eden Hazard, was loaned in and should be exciting to watch in attacking midfield.

The biggest issue for BMG will probably be production at striker, as only one proven center forward is on the roster -- and Max Kruse is injured for the Foals' first match. Goals will most likely have to come from other outlets, but the defense will be sturdy. Depending on how much emphasis is put on the Europa League, form in the Bundesliga could suffer.

Key Player: Max Kruse

The 26-year-old will again have to split the goalscoring duties for the club with Raffael. The two combined for 27 goals last season, and more of the same will be expected. If Kruse can better last season's tally of 12, Lucien Favre's side should have no problem clinching one of the European places once more.

Eintracht Frankfurt

A year ago Eintracht Frankfurt finished sixth, just four points off the Champions League qualification spots. Fast forward to now and Eintracht are coming off an extremely disappointing domestic season in which they finished 13th, although their poor domestic form was offset by a strong showing in the Europa League. Last season's schedule was rough, but with just the Bundesliga this year, look for them to make inroads in the top half of the table.

Offsetting the loss of Joselu, who moved on to Hannover at the end of his season-long loan, Frankfurt went out and snagged 22-year-old Swiss international Haris Seferovic from Real Sociedad on the back of a relatively strong World Cup performance. However, their season will come down to how effective Makoto Hasebe and Timothy Chandler are in replacing the loss of two of Frankfurt's brightest talents: Sebastian Rode (free transfer to Bayern Munich) and Sebastian Jung (€2.5M transfer to Wolfsburg).

Hanging over those changes is the appointment of new head coach Thomas Schaaf. Schaaf brings a decade of outstanding experience with Werder Bremen to the table, but struggled mightily in recent seasons with a weak Bremen team before ultimately being sacked.

Key Player: Marco Russ

The 29-year old center back is the rock in defense for Eintracht Frankfurt. With a holding midfield with question marks, Frankfurt's season will likely hinge on his ability to organize and structure the defense. In conjunction with that, how effectively he can reign in and control his red-card prone partner Carlos Zambrano will also be a major indicator of how far they can rise this season.

Freiburg

Participating in their first European competition last season, Freiburg struggled to replicate their 2012/13 form on three fronts. They were in relegation danger after a 0-1 loss to Borussia Dortmund, but 17 points in eight games gave them the boost they needed to stay up. They will have to start from scratch again after losing Oliver Baumann and Matthias Ginter, but their organic squad remains young enough to keep them in the top half of the table. The Europa League will not tax their thin squad this time around, so they might have another push for Europe in them.

Key Player: Admir Mehmedi

A part-time player with Dynamo Kyiv, Mehmedi took full advantage of his loan to SC Freiburg, scoring 12 goals in 32 Bundesliga appearances. That lead to a call-up to Switzerland for the World Cup, with whom he scored a critical equalizer against Ecuador coming off of the bench. Now a full-time Freiburg player, he will be able to continue to fill the void that Daniel Caligiuri and Max Kruse left behind, something he will need to do again for Freiburg to do more than escape relegation.

HSV

Hamburger SV are back for their 512nd straight season in the Bundesliga, although it remains a wonder that they're not spending this season in the second division. HSV spent the majority of the 2013-2014 season in the bottom three spots, ultimately finishing 16th and requiring a playoff against Greuther Fürth to remain in the top flight. Hamburg leaked the most goals in Bundesliga last season, with 75, brought in a spirit-healer to help them survive the drop, and ultimately kept their place by virtue of a single away goal in the playoff.

So Hamburg were an utter mess last season -- has anything changed? Fans can only hope. An overhaul of the club's structure and a much-needed change of the executive board occurred over the summer, but a complete revamp of the team has yet to take place. However, HSV have made some smart transfers, bringing in defensive midfielder Valon Behrami to protect that shaky backline, Nicolai Müller to help out wide, and signing top scorer Pierre-Michel Lasogga to a permanent deal. Yet a cloud of uncertainty still lingers, and it feels as though HSV could face another ride on the relegation rollercoaster.

Key player: Pierre-Michel Lasogga

One of Oliver Kreuzer's last contributions as HSV's sporting director was to bring in Lasogga on a permanent deal, one move that fans should surely be pleased about. The forward spent last season with the club on loan from Hertha Berlin, scoring 13 goals in 20 appearances and causing the side to pine while he was out injured. He also contributed the lone goal in the relegation playoff, essentially keeping Hamburg in the Bundesliga.

Hannover

The 96ers sat just two points above the drop zone in early April, but a run of 13 points in the final five matches ensured a rather deceptive 10th place finish. It was an uneven campaign for Hannover, and midseason replacement manager Tayfun Korkut spent the summer putting his own stamp on the club in an effort to bring some consistency to the AWD Arena. Out are Szabolcs Huszti and Mame Biram Diouf, scorers of 17 goals between them, and in are Hiroshi Kiyotake, who fled relegated Nürnberg and will be looking to revive his promising career, and former Real Madrid prospect Joselu, who spent the last two seasons in Germany.

Korkut will be looking to prove that the final run of good form in 2013-14 was not a fluke, but the team is a young one overall, making consistency a tough ask. The answer could lie in part with Marius Stankevicius, the veteran captain of Turkish side Gaziantespor, who signed just days ago and will provide experience in front of Ron-Robert Zieler. The 25-year-old keeper saw his save ratios plummet last season, and a bounce back year from him behind an improved defense might just be the key to an improvement on 10th for the Reds.

Key player: Hiroshi Kiyotake

Kiyotake has been linked with some reasonably rich clubs from outside the Bundesliga over the last year, but when his old club FC Nürnburg was relegated, he opted to move within Germany instead of heading elsewhere. He's one of the best creators in Germany and should make an excellent compliment for Joselu.

Hertha Berlin

After gaining promotion from the 2. Bundesliga in 2012-13, Hertha Berlin had a decent campaign last season in Germany's top flight, finishing comfortably mid-table. That will be just about the goal for this season, as die Alte Dame will focus on building their young and improving squad in an increasingly improving league full of young talent.

The sale of Adrián Ramos to Borussia Dortmund hurts, but it raised almost €10m to spend on transfers. Hamburg spent €8.5m on Pierre-Michel Lasogga, who spent last season there on loan, so there was money to be spent this summer. Wasting no time, manager Jos Luhukay made some seemingly smart purchases on the cheap, bringing in forwardJulian Schieber from Dortmund for €2.5m, Valentin Stocker from FC Basel for €3.5m, and Jens Hegeler from Bayer Leverkusen for 1.5m. Johnny Heitinga also joined on a free transfer from relegated Fulham, and the 30-year-old should help shore up central defense.

Speaking of center backs, John Anthony Brooks, who scored the United States' winner against Ghana in the World Cup, should see a lot more of the pitch and at just 21, is a player to watch now and in the future. Sami Allagui is a solid attacking talent and will be expected to produce along with the aforementioned Stocker and Schieber.

Key Player: Julian Schieber

Someone will need to fill the void left by Ramos, who scored 16 of Hertha's 40 goals last season, a total that's rather paltry for the free-scoring Bundesliga. While Schieber won't be expected to match Ramos' total, reaching double figures for the season will be crucial for Hertha's success -- and for them not to be laughed at by their high-scoring brethren.

Hoffenheim

A team that invested €30 million in transfers in the late 2000s to reach the upper echelon of German football may now be ready to take the next step. Their attacking power is just coming of age, using pace and potency as its best weapons. The problem remains their defense, which allowed the second most goals in 2013/14. The additions of Adam Szalai, Oliver Baumann, Ermin Bičakčić, and Kin Jin-Su may help, but their switch to a 4-4-2 may not.

Hoffenheim are one of the least popular clubs among other fans of the Bundesliga because of the way they spent to achieve their current position, then started to struggle after an initial burst to the top of the Bundesliga table, but they're starting to look a bit more stable. And if they manage to hold on to star Kevin Volland -- the subject of transfer links to most of Europe's big clubs -- until the end of the summer, they might find themselves well clear of the relegation battle.

Key Player: Roberto Firmino

His first two seasons with Hoffenheim were run-of-the mill production, but Roberto Firmino blossomed into something bigger in his third. His 16 goals a year ago were tied for fourth in the Bundesliga, and his 12 assists were second to only Marco Reus. With a tremendous stable of attackers around him, he will have to be the linchpin that corrals all of them. His 2014/15 season could be the difference between the European spotlight and lower-table irrelevancy.

Köln

A team that won the 2. Bundesliga despite having a rather meager attack, Köln beefed up their front line with second-tier strikers Simon Zoller and Yuya Osako. Chelsea loanee Tomas Kalas should provide a young flavor to a seasoned defense, although the jury is still out on whether the rebuilt unit will be able to halt Bundesliga sides. Since the reinstitution of the relegation playoff in 2008, only one team that has won the 2. Bundesliga has been unable to stay up, giving Köln terrific odds to stay in the top flight.

Köln don't have any stars on the level of Lukas Podolski and Milivoje Novaković like they did the last time they were in the Bundesliga, but that might end up being a blessing. The team that went down was overly dependent on those players, then crashed and burned when they weren't available or at their best. This edition of Die Geißböcke might look more like a team than a group of guys camping behind the halfway line and hoping their stars could get it done on their own.

Key Player: Timo Horn

The 21-year-old is part of the next generation of German goalkeepers along with Marc-André ter Stegen and Bernd Leno, developed in the German youth system. When Köln was relegated in 2012, they committed to Horn (then 19) and have not looked back since. He will face his biggest challenge when taking on Bundesliga sides, and how he weathers the continuous pressure could determine the direction of Köln as a club.

Mainz

Mainz 05 have spent the past fifteen years hopping back and forth between Germany's first and second divisions, but they now seem to have found a home in the Bundesliga, about to start their sixth straight season in the top flight. They finished seventh last time around, high enough to qualify for the early rounds of Europa League, but after losing 3-2 on aggregate to Greek side Asteras Tripoli, the European adventure is already over.

Fans will be hoping this isn't a sign of what's to come in the league. At the close of last season, Thomas Tuchel abruptly resigned, walking away after five seasons in charge. Under Tuchel, Mainz kept their opponents on their toes, constantly pressing yet maintaining an organized defense, and often varying their starting XI from week to week.

In his place is Kasper Hjulmand, former coach at F.C. Nordsjælland, the Danish side perhaps best remembered for getting one point from the Champions League group stages two years ago -- and with a controversial goal at that. The worry is that Mainz will have lost their way a bit. It's not that they've let go of their best players, or that Hjulmand is bringing in a load of new faces. It's more that his side simply looked so different in their first two games under his hand, seemingly out of ideas in front of goal, and unraveling at the back. But perhaps it's too early to judge this Mainz side.

Key Player: Shinji Okazaki

Okazaki was Mainz's top scorer last season, with 15 goals in 33 appearances, and now that the club are entering a transition period, it's going to be even more vital that the 28-year-old stays on top of his game. He's also going to need to help make up for Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting's departure, but at least he'll have Filip Djuricic, on loan from Benfica, to help shoulder the attacking burden.

Paderborn

At the turn of the century, SC Paderborn 07 were competing in the Oberliga Westfalen, then the fourth division of German football. Fifteen years later, they've made it to the top flight for the first time in history, after a dramatic come-from-behind victory on the final day secured their second-place finish in 2. Bundesliga. But, given the recent history of promoted teams that were not 2. Bundesliga winners -- Eintracht Braunschweig, Greuther Fürth, Fortuna Düsseldorf and St. Pauli all came up and went right back down in the past few years -- the chances of Paderborn staying up are quite slim.

Like most recently promoted clubs, Paderborn have stocked up on new signings. They've held on to André Breitenreiter, however, who led the side to promotion in his first season in charge. It's up to him to make sure the host of new players come together as a team, rather than as a collection of individual personalities. Fortunately, it looks like the core that made up the SCP team side is sticking around. Top scorers Mahir Sağlık and Alba Meha remain, as does Uwe Hünemeier, who was a constant presence in the backline last season. With the right mix of the old dogs and some new tricks, Paderborn may keep the dream alive.

Key player: Elias Kachunga

The 22-year-old striker is both a familiar face and a new signing. Kachunga came to Paderborn on loan in the middle of the 2012-2013 season, and although he scored just six goals in 33 games last season, the club are banking on his continued development, and have signed him to a permanent deal. If he steps up and manages to threaten the Bundesliga defenses, his side just may manage to stay up.

Schalke

Schalke are always on the cusp of achieving something great, but they never quite get there. Regularly one of the best supported teams in Germany with one of the most talented squads, Schalke always find ways to let trophies slip away. They did win a DFB-Pokal title in 2011, but they haven't won Germany's top domestic league since the Bundesliga was formed in the 1960s.

This year promises to be a lot like the last few. They have an extremely talented young core, headlined by Julian Draxler, Leon Gortetzka and Max Meyer. They have star veterans like Klaas-Jan Hunteelar, Kevin-Prince Boateng and World Cup starter Benedikt Höwedes around them. They've added some serious firepower, with Maxim Choupo-Moting and Sidney Sam joining their ranks. This is a deep, talented team, good enough to hang around near the top of the table, finish ahead of hated rivals Borussia Dortmund and at least give Bayern Munich a little bit to think about.

But this is probably the last year Schalke will have the squad to compete on that level for a while. If a title, the possibility to compete for Champions League and a salary that rivals what he'd get at the super clubs don't all come along, Draxler won't be at Schalke past this season. Huntelaar is 31 and might slow down soon. It's a make-or-break season for Schalke's future.

Key player: Benedikt Höwedes

Draxler might be Schalke's best player, but they have very good depth in attacking midfield areas. Their defense is always a question mark, though, and it doesn't have to be. Höwedes has always been an erratic player, capable of turning in a world class performance one game and making a ton of errors the next. If he's consistently at his best, Schalke will compete for a top-three spot.

Stuttgart

It's been a disappointing few years for Stuttgart, and last season they just about hit rock bottom. They avoided the relegation playoff, but only by five points, finishing in a very disappointing 15th place.

They've brought in Oriol Romeu to steel up their midfield, along with a group of young wingers and striker prospect Daniel Ginczek, but everything about the team still looks a bit uninspiring. Stuttgart simply haven't done enough, transfer-wise, to make a significant impact. They have the squad to avoid relegation again, but it's unlikely that they'll compete for a European place.

Stuttgart are a bit thin in central defense, so their ability to prevent goals hinges on retaining star defender Antonio Rudiger. He's been the subject of transfer speculation all summer, with clubs from every major league in Europe interested. Stuttgart insist he's not for sale, and at this point in the window, it's probably too late for them to turn a potential eight-figure fee into good replacements.

Key player: Moritz Leitner

If Stuttgart do get quite a bit better and challenge for a top-half spot, it'll probably be because Leitner takes a step up in his development. He was unspectacular during his first season with the team, and his parent club Borussia Dortmund will be hoping that the second year of his loan spell sees him turn into a star.

Werder Bremen

After six top three finishes in seven years in the mid 2000's, Werder Bremen have been in near freefall since the end of the 2009/2010 season. With players departing left and right from the club, it's has been a trying last few seasons for the Die Werderaner. Unfortunately, this year is shaping up to be just as disappointing.

Werder Bremen lost their joint leading scorer and leading assister, 27-year-old Aaron Hunt, to VfL Wolfsburg on a free transfer. To date, their only offensive move of note is to add 23-year-old winger Izet Hajrovic on a free from Galatasaray. On the defensive side, they've been similarly quiet, just picking up 25-year-old Álex Gálvez from Rayo Vallecano on a free while purchasing the previously on-loan left back Santiago García, who'd previously been relegated in Italy with Palermo.

While they've added some potential depth elsewhere, nothing they've done will likely be enough to push Werder Bremen out of the Bundesliga relegation battle. While they finished 12 points above it last year, that was due less to their skill and more to the sheer ineptitude farther down the table.

Key Player: Nils Peterson

Peterson, the once Bayern Munich striker, is the key to the Werder Bremen offense. Last season's joint-leading scorer will have to shoulder more of the attacking burden with the departure of Aaron Hunt.

Wolfsburg

Wolfsburg has redeveloped into a Bundesliga team that cannot be ignored. Their financial uncertainty is completely behind them, and they have realigned their transfer policy to attract class talent to their club. Dieter Hecking has them playing a temperate and controlled style, which has sometimes worked to their detriment in attack. Just shy of qualifying for the Champions League last season, they will make another strong push this campaign and try to unseat the incumbents of the past two seasons.

The group of Kevin De Bruyne, Max Arnold, Ivan Perisic and Vieirinha gives them one of the most dangerous groups of attacking midfielders in the Bundesliga. They also have Ivica Olic and Aaron Hunt, who can play on the wing as well as up top. The team has quality all over the pitch, but this is their clear strength.

Die Wölfe have plenty of quality up top, in the center, in goal and at fullback as well, but central defense is a bit of a problem area. They have plenty of bodies, but no two starters who are clearly top-four quality.

Key Player: Kevin De Bruyne

Unable to break into the starting lineup at Chelsea, De Bruyne moved to Wolfsburg last January and immediately became a focal playmaker in attack. He is coming off a strong World Cup campaign where he was a top selection for Marc Wilmot's team sheet, and now he needs to extrapolate that form to the club level. As deep as Wolfsburg's squad has become, their amount of elite players has not increased. Still just 23, De Bruyne is about to come of age, and he will need to for Wolfsburg to get over the hump.

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