The German 1. Bundesliga starts tonight when champions BV Borussia Dortmund play Hertha BSC Berlin.
Few leagues have been as consistently tense in recent times as the German 1. Bundesliga - last season's final day championship triumph for BV Borussia Dortmund being a case in point. The 2002/03 campaign, which gets under way today, promises to be just as exciting.
Strong Bayern signings
FC Bayern München have responded to finishing third behind Dortmund and Bayer 04 Leverkusen last term by buying two of the latter's best players - Michael Ballack and Zé Roberto - in addition to rising German star Sebastian Deisler, leaving coach Ottmar Hitzfeld with an embarrassment of riches to choose from.
Ballack's arrival, as successor to playmaker Stefan Effenberg, is particularly significant. His inspiration more than anything helped Leverkusen to last season's UEFA Champions League final. If he shows the form displayed in Bayern's impressive pre-season wins against Milan AC and European champions Real Madrid CF, then he could provide the confidence for Bayern to wrest the title back from Dortmund.
Champions face tough task
The Westfalenstadion side have themselves been no slouches in the transfer market, German international Torsten Frings and Argentinian Juan Ramón Fernández arriving in Dortmund. But with Marcio Amoroso, last year's leading scorer, suffering a serious hamstring injury, Dortmund could face an uphill struggle to retain their crown.
Klaus Toppmöller will be hoping his Leverkusen team can rid themselves of the unwanted sobriquet 'Neverkusen' - which has haunted them since they came second in the Bundesliga last May as well as losing the Champions League and German Cup finals. Czech star Jan Simak and Brazilian newcomers Juan and Franca are the men charged with replacing Ballack and Zé Roberto.
Hertha BSC Berlin signalled their intent with victory in the recent German League Cup, demolishing FC Schalke 04 4-1 in the final after beating all their main championship rivals. New coach Huub Stevens has bought wisely, Luizão arriving to form a three-pronged Brazilian attack with Alex Alves and Marcelinho.
Despite that loss, Schalke, led by new young coach Frank Neubarth, should also be in contention come May. Denmark's Christian Poulsen has been the highest profile addition at the Arena Aufschalke.
The likely conundrum at the bottom of the table promises to be equally taxing as the championship one. The promoted sides - Hannover 96, DSC Arminia Bielefeld and VfL Bochum 1848 - are tipped to struggle, as are the eastern teams FC Hansa Rostock and FC Energie Cottbus, while 1. FC Nürnberg could also be looking over their shoulders.
Reliant on veterans
A number of the traditionally stronger outfits are expected to flirt above the relegation zone. TSV 1860 München are reliant on veteran duo Thomas Hässler and Davor Šuker after losing key players in the summer, while SV Werder Bremen, Hamburger SV and VfB Stuttgart seemingly do not possess the wherewithal to be deemed dark horses.
1. FC Kaiserlautern, however, do after coach Andreas Brehme kept hold of Germany's five-goal World Cup striker Miroslav Klose. VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach and VfL Wolfsburg are also ambitious and all three will be challenging for a UEFA Cup place.