FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) - Bayern Munich kicks off the defense of its Bundesliga title on Friday against revamped Wolfsburg with fans hoping for a thrilling season after Germany’s triumph at the World Cup in Brazil.
For that to happen, however, Bayern will have to lose some of its dominance. Bayern became the earliest ever champion in March and finished 19 points ahead of Borussia Dortmund. The previous season, it beat Dortmund to the title by a 25-point margin. The two clubs are expected again to be the main rivals for the championship. Dortmund won the dress rehearsal, beating an injury-hit Bayern 2-0 in the German Super Cup two weeks ago.
Here are five things to know ahead of the opening round:
THE CLUB TO BEAT: Still Bayern. Pep Guardiola’s team has enough talent to deal with the problems it faces going into the season. Some key players are out with long-term injuries, such as Javi Martinez, Thiago Alcantara and Rafinha. Bastian Schweinsteiger is nursing a knee injury and won’t return for weeks, while Franck Ribery will also miss the season opener.
Guardiola expects a difficult start to the season also because of recovery time for his World Cup winners. Six of his payers lined up for Germany and Arjen Robben also played until the end for third-place Netherlands. Bayern, which usually has the most German internationals, has always struggled after a World Cup and has never won the title after a world championship victory. Bayern is seeking to three-peat for the third time. Borussia Moenchengladbach is the only other club to have won three straight league titles, in the 1970s.
Robert Lewandoski will more than compensate for the loss of striker Mario Mandzukic but the departure of midfielder Toni Kroos may leave a bigger gap.
THE CHALLENGER: Borussia Dortmund still looks like Bayern’s biggest challenger, despite the departure of Lewandowski, the Bundesliga’s top scorer last season. Forward Marco Reus and defender Neven Subotic are returning from injury just in time and coach Juergen Klopp has some new players.
Ciro Immobile, top scorer in Italy last season, and the experienced Adrian Ramos, previously of Hertha Berlin, have been signed to fill the void left by Lewandowski. Defender Matthias Ginter, a member of Germany’s World Cup squad, was brought in from Freiburg. The speedy forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been impressive in preseason games. Dortmund won 3-0 in Munich last season but lost the German Cup final to Bayern.
THE CLUB TO WATCH: Bayer Leverkusen. Fourth last season, Leverkusen has a new coach, Roger Schmidt, with a reputation for favoring attacking football. The club has also added depth to its squad.
Midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu, considered one of the most promising playmakers in the league, has been brought in from Hamburger SV, along with Croatia’s talented teenager Tin Jedvaj.
Veteran Stefan Kiessling remains one of the Bundesliga’s top strikers. He scored five of Leverkusen’s six goals in a German Cup victory over low-tier opposition.