The new German Bundesliga season begins on Friday, with reigning champions Wolfsburg likely to face a renewed challenge from Bayern Munich.
The Wolves’ unexpected title triumph last season has reinforced the Bundesliga’s unpredictable reputation.
Few would have had Wolfsburg down as serious title candidates last August and not many would have predicted their glory at the midway stage of the campaign in December when they were lying ninth.
But a phenomenal haul of 43 points in 17 games earned the Lower Saxony club their first ever Bundesliga crown and coach Felix Magath his third just two years after taking over.
Bayern’s presumed superiority and expected dominance failed to materialize in a year which Jupp Heynckes only just managed to save with qualification for the Champions League after Jurgen Klinsmann had failed to latch onto Ottmar Hitzfeld’s double-winning triumph in 2008.
However, under the experienced guidance of Louis van Gaal, Bayern are expected to return to the forefront of German football once again this season.
They have strengthened their squad with over 70million euros’ worth of new talent, which includes Anatoliy Tymoschuk from Zenit St Petersburg, Mario Gomez from Stuttgart and Ivica Olic from Hamburg, and only the title can justify such a shopping spree.
But as Stuttgart in 2007 and Wolfsburg last year proved, nothing can be taken for granted in the Bundesliga.
Those two sides will open the 2009/10 season on Friday night when they meet at the VW-Arena, and both will be among the leading title candidates.
Although the Wolves have lost their inspirational manager, who opted to join Schalke after having “achieved too much too quickly”, they have managed to keep their championship-winning squad intact.
Their new coach, Armin Veh, the mastermind of Stuttgart’s equally surprising success in 2007, has even added more strength to last season’s record-breaking 54-goal strike-partnership of Edin Dzeko and Grafite.
Obafemi Martins’ arrival from Newcastle means Wolfsburg are largely regarded as Bayern’s closest challengers for silverware.
But Stuttgart are expected to push them both close. They picked up 39 points in the second half of last season, losing only two games under new coach Markus Babbel.
Despite losing top-scorer Gomez to Bayern, they have picked up Alexander Hleb on loan from Barcelona and Pavel Pogrebnyak from Zenit to aid their assault on glory.
Last season’s top three should therefore be the teams to beat this year, but there promises to be a keen battle for places in Europe next season.
Magath’s arrival at Schalke should spur them back up the table while Hamburg and northern Germany rivals Werder Bremen will fancy their chances too.
Hoffenheim, who led the league at the midway stage of the season, have added further strength to their squad while Vedad Ibisevic is back from a serious knee injury, meaning they too should be aiming to finish higher than the seventh place they managed in their debut season.
Meanwhile, Cologne have made two of the summer’s most spectacular transfers in Lukas Podolski and Maniche, fuelling a new-found optimism in the city.
They will expect to provide serious competition to local rivals Bayer Leverkusen for a place in Europe next season, while Borussia Dortmund, in their second year under Jurgen Klopp, will be dreaming of a return to the dizzy heights after years of under-achievement.
Hertha Berlin exceeded the expectations by finishing fourth last term and they will have to adequately compensate for the losses of Marco Pantelic, Andrej Voronin and Josip Simunic if they are to repeat that feat.
The rest of the Bundesliga will be aiming to remain in the top flight next season.
Borussia Monchengladbach only just avoided relegation last year with Bochum and Eintracht Frankfurt struggling for most of the campaign.
Hannover were knocked out of the DFB-Pokal in the first round by a fourth-division side at the weekend while their pre-season form hardly inspires optimism in Lower Saxony.
Of the three clubs promoted from the second division, Nurnberg and Freiburg will be looking to establish themselves back in the top flight, but Mainz, who also made an early exit from the cup, will be expecting a long, hard slog.
Their preparations have been less than ideal with the untested Thomas Tuchel replacing Jorn Andersen as coach just a week before the start of the campaign.
Yet however unpredictable the Bundesliga season may be, a further increase in attendance figures is practically guaranteed.
The crowds have been flocking to German matches in recent years, making the Bundesliga the most followed league in Europe.
With a larger capacity in Leverkusen combined with the loss of some of the division’s less-supported sides such as Arminia Bielefeld and Energie Cottbus – as well as the arrival of Nurnberg – the 2009/10 season should be another record-breaking year.