Season preview: Dortmund's chance to knock Bayern off Bundesliga perch
A spending spree of €110 million on eight new players. The capture of two German internationals from two Bundesliga rivals. A disciplined, tactics-obsessed coach who will soon attract plenty of interest from the Premier League. Hold on a minute: Have Borussia Dortmund turned into the new Bayern Munich?
BVB supporters and neutrals alike will hope that the 2016-17 will bring Thomas Tuchel's men and the four-in-a-row champions from Bavaria much closer together, even to the point of the table(s) being turned. It's certainly a compelling matchup: a new, completely reconstructed, hungry but necessarily unfinished Dortmund side versus the post-Pep Bayern of Carlo Ancelotti, a Champions League specialist who rarely delivers championships.
The Italian's remarkably modest record of three league titles in 20 years hints at the closest title race in years. But the sheer amount of talented players and smart coaches plying their trade in the 54th Bundesliga season should offer plenty of excitement beyond the Red vs. Black and Yellows tussle, with real quality football from top to bottom.
Three big storylines
Tuchel's revolution and Ancelotti's first year at Sabener Strasse aside, one of the biggest stories will be RB Leipzig's hostile reception in their debut season in the top flight. The Red Bull-controlled and sponsored side are facing calls of stadium boycotts by opposing fans. They'll be considered public enemy No. 1 by traditionalists who dislike a corporation gaming the system the way Red Bull have -- legitimately -- by taking over a fifth division side and rising through the leagues.
Sporting success for RB will turn up the volume of dissent but could also inspire others to follow suit. The wider point is whether the league will allow more direct investment in the face of new money, mostly from China, flooding football elsewhere.
Bayer 04 Leverkusen were tipped as champions by Hertha BSC coach Pal Dardai. That might be overly optimistic, but it isn't altogether outlandish. Roger Schmidt didn't lose any key players and gained German international Kevin Volland in attack. Overall, the team is good enough to consolidate in third place. Leverkusen's relatively small stature and following, however, will see the bigger, more strategically important battle to become the third true force in the league continue.
Schalke 04, under new manager Markus Weinzierl, and the reliably well-run Borussia Monchengladbach are well-placed to break up the Bayern vs. Dortmund duopoly, but strong competition will make that hard, as Hamburger SV and Wolfsburg harbour ambitions to make it into the Champions League too.
This season will also see the momentous, historic introduction of live video evidence -- kind of. The Bundesliga will trial the use of video referees by having officials watch three matches each week and take notes, for research purposes only. If that first run of tests proves positive, actual video referees could come in at the start of the next season.
World Cup winners Mats Hummels (Dortmund to Bayern), Mario Gotze (Bayern to Dortmund) and Andre Schurrle (Wolfsburg to Dortmund) were the biggest names to sign on the dotted line.
Hummels has moved back to Bayern, where he started as a player, in order to win trophies, but his Germany teammates Gotze and Schurrle need to first find themselves again and fulfill their huge potential in the wake of false dawns.
It's a similar story with Mario Gomez (Fiorentina to Wolfsburg), while Portuguese teenage midfielder Renato Sanches (Benfica to Bayern) and Swiss talent Breel Embolo (Basel to Schalke) will aim to add to their burgeoning reputation.
The class of BVB duo Ilkay Gundogan (Man City) and Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Manchester United) will be missed -- and not just by fans of Tuchel's team.
The loss of the prodigious German international Leroy Sane to Man City also hurts both Schalke and the league, even if the blow was cushioned by a transfer fee so inflated that Schalke 04 couldn't possibly refuse to sell.
Who will win the league?
Dortmund's typically smart acquisition of future stars (left-back Raphael Guerreiro, winger Ousmane Dembele and attacking midfielder Emre Mor) and underrated performers (Sebastian Rode and Marc Bartra) will enable Tuchel to rotate more, introduce even more tactical flexibility and speed BVB's game up even further.
The number of changes to the side will take some time to be implemented properly, and it's hard to see Bayern drop too many points with the superlative squad at Ancelotti's disposal. But if Dortmund manage to stay the course until the latter part of the season, when Bayern's focus might well shift to the Champions League, a first title for the Black and Yellows since 2012 appears feasible.
Battle at the bottom
As much as underfunded Darmstadt admirably beat the odds to stay up last season, it's difficult to see them repeat that feat, now that manager Dirk Schuster has moved on to FC Augsburg and Norbert Meier has taken over.
In terms of individual potential, the Lilies simply can't hold a candle to their opponents. Although many have tipped Werder Bremen to follow VfB Stuttgart down to Bundesliga 2 in May, the Northerner's squad is good enough to stay up in relative safety, provided the club realise that Viktor Skripnik needs replacing.
SC Freiburg will almost certainly keep the faith with Christian Streich, come what may, but their outlook is bleak. Like Darmstadt, Ingolstadt could suffer from "second season syndrome," which is just a fancy phrase for the lack of quality catching up with you eventually.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein