BERLIN: The Bundesliga returns Friday with German football shaken by the shambolic early World Cup exit while Bayern Munich hope new coach Niko Kovac can maintain the relentless success the club expect.
Germany's embarrassing failure to defend their title in Russia, crashing out after finishing bottom of their group, leaves several Bundesliga stars with a point to prove in the new season.
Bayern kick off the new campaign on Friday at home to Hoffenheim, who will make their debut in the Champions League group stages this season, with midfielder Thomas Mueller admitting the World Cup debacle provides extra motivation.
"It's about how we can do better - after going out like that, you handle failure very badly, because no-one expected it," Mueller told the Bayern website.
After the debacle in Russia, Germany coach Joachim Loew is expected to make sweeping changes when he names his squad on Wednesday for the home game against newly-crowned world champions France on September 6 in the Nations League.
The focus against Hoffenheim at the Allianz Arena will be on Bayern's World Cup stars Mueller, Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels and Manuel Neuer, who all under-performed on the World Cup stage.
The spotlight will also fall on Kovac in his first home league game after joining from Eintracht Frankfurt, who shocked Bayern 3-1 in May's German Cup final in his final game.
- Challenge needed -
Kovac has already been handed a reduced squad with Chile midfielder Arturo Vidal sold to Barcelona.
The transfer window closes in Germany on August 31 and president Uli Hoeness says there is a "50-50" chance Boateng could still go to Paris Saint-Germain, while Thiago Alcantara has been linked to a return to Barcelona.
Kovac will be expected to ensure Bayern pick up where they left off last season when they secured a sixth straight league title by a 21-point margin.
However, the German league desperately needs a challenger to come forward.
In a recent survey of 2,500 football fans for internet provider t-online.de, just 17.9 percent believed a club other than Bayern will be German champions in 2018/19.
Worryingly for the German Football League (DFL), just 18 percent of those polled believe there will be an exciting fight for the title.
Bundesliga fans have grown to accept the title will inevitably head to Munich.
Of the sides bidding to wrestle the Bundesliga trophy from Bayern's iron grip, Borussia Dortmund, under new head coach Lucien Favre, and RB Leipzig lead the charge.
Dortmund's signing of Axel Witsel is the Bundesliga's biggest name transfer ahead of 2018/19.
Having paid Chinese side Tianjin Quanjian 20 million euros ($22.9m) for Witsel, the Belgium midfielder came off the bench to score a late equaliser in their 2-1 comeback German Cup win on Monday at second division Greuther Fuerth.
Witsel is expected to forge a solid defensive midfield partnership with Denmark's Thomas Delaney, signed from Werder Bremen.
German fans will be hoping new Dortmund captain Marco Reus forges a goal-scoring partnership with 2014 World Cup winner Mario Goetze and US international Christian Pulisic.
Dortmund start their league season on Sunday at home to Leipzig, who have had a brutal start to the season having played six games before the league season starts after two rounds of two-legged Europa League qualifiers.
Ralf Rangnick has moved from sporting director to take over as head coach and Leipzig have a potent force up front with Germany striker Timo Werner partnering Yussuf Poulsen and Swedish playmaker Emil Forsberg calling the shots.
Fixtures (all times 1330 GMT unless stated):
Bayern Munich v Hoffenheim (1830).
Hertha Berlin v Nuremberg, Werder Bremen v Hanover 96, Freiburg v Eintracht Frankfurt, Wolfsburg v Schalke 04, Fortuna Duesseldorf v Augsburg, Borussia Moenchengladbach v Bayer Leverkusen (1630).
Mainz v Stuttgart, Borussia Dortmund v RB Leipzig (1600).