After a four-week absence, the Bundesliga finally returns. On Saturday, Borussia Dortmund open their Ruckrunde against a strong Augsburg team, but with renewed optimism that they can reclaim second place in the Bundesliga. A fresh start in the new year can help Dortmund forget the grim end to the Hinrunde. No more injury worries means coach Juergen Klopp has almost an entire squad at his disposal. All signs point toward the black and yellows being able to turn things around.
When asked if he could still motivate a team for "only" second place, Klopp replied: "If we finish second, I will hire a truck and drive it through my own backyard to celebrate."
Success, of course, leads to a rise in expectations, but it bothers me a lot that Borussia Dortmund are often only defined by titles. One must never forget where the side came from and whom they are up against.
A team like BVB, that is heavily reliant on automatism to make their high octane football work, just cannot cope with an injury crisis such as that which occurred last year. Yet the boys secured first place in one of the toughest Champions League groups, even with six players missing who featured in last year's final.
Reclaiming second place in the German top flight will be tough enough -- even though Dortmund are the second best team in the league on paper.
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Five points have to be made up on Bayer Leverkusen, who are no pushovers, but historically play worse in the second half of the season. Just one of those "Neverkusen" things, I guess.
Also, VfL Wolfsburg cannot be ignored. Volkswagen's company club have just spent 20 million euros on Kevin de Bruyne -- a transfer that makes an already competitive team even better.
Although second place is the target, a direct qualification spot for the Champions League will do and I will happily take third place if that means extended runs in both cup competitions. I am optimistic that the second half of the season will be much more enjoyable for BVB.
Back to the roots
Klopp had many things to work on during the winter training camp in Spain. With BVB in three competitions, there usually isn't much time to really work on things on a week-to-week basis during the season as regeneration is the priority. So the players had to undergo a very intense and demanding few weeks to work on their shortcomings.
The friendly matches highlighted how heavy legged the players were. But friendlies are not important. Klopp's high-intensity gegenpressing is important; and one could observe during the break that the pressing started higher up the pitch again.
During the final stages of last year, BVB lost a bit of their philosophy, mostly because they did not have enough structure in the ever-changing lineup, which resulted in a too cautious approach and also fatigue.
Reinstalling greed and determination in front of goal was also on Klopp's agenda. If the final friendly against Duisburg, where the legs were a lot fresher, is any indication, then there is a certain clear-headedness that could lead Dortmund back to the path of success.
Also, it seems that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can make a bigger impact on the game with BVB's higher approach on the pitch. I'm very confident that the Gabon international will become a more dangerous weapon as the season goes on.
Speaking of dangerous weapons, all eyes will be on Henrikh Mkhitaryan again, who hopefully will leave more of a mark in the second half of the season. The two goals against Duisburg for the self-critical Armenian might become very important, as one could feel how they uplifted his game immediately.
Bring on FC Augsburg!
But, of course, all the virtues and promises have to be proven on the pitch. To ensure a good start, a win against Augsburg is vital.
Augsburg might not be the most feared side in the league, but they are far from being pushovers. The individual quality of Markus Weinzierl's side is average at best, but the team have a great chemistry and are a strong and confident unit on the pitch.
Augsburg, who are currently eighth, are a great example that you can achieve on-pitch success by simply making good decisions in terms of playing philosophy and transfer policy instead of just splashing cash everywhere. After their promotion to the top flight and two years of hard battle against relegation, they seem to have finally established themselves in the league -- and deserve a lot of credit for it.
So far, the attempt by Dortmund fans to help bring back Shinji Kagawa from Manchester United by using the popular #FreeShinji hashtag has been half successful.
With the signing of the 22-year-old Korean attacker Dong-Won Ji, there is only Shin missing. BVB fans might get a glimpse of their latest signing soon, as he signed a six-month deal with Augsburg before joining Dortmund next season on a free transfer.
The young striker, of course, isn't the replacement for Robert Lewandowski, but he is a smart addition to the squad. He has a lot of potential and will add some much-needed depth upfront.
Klopp almost has his whole team fit again. Only Mats Hummels, who will return against Eintracht Braunschweig, and Ilkay Gundogan, who still needs three to four weeks, are still missing.
With Hummels being out there will be one position for Klopp to worry about. Who will line up next to Sokratis Papastathopoulos? The candidates are Manuel Friedrich, Marian Sarr, Koray Gunter and Sven Bender.
Manuel Friedrich is my least favourite option, as he seems to play a lot of passes directly to opponents. A centre-back who can contribute in build-up play would be my favourable choice and it wouldn't be too bad if Koray Gunter finally got his chance.