Robert Lewandowski wore a wry grin. Whatever he tried, his first goal for Barcelona was stubbornly absent. A shot skimmed over the crossbar. Thumping efforts were kept out by the New York Red Bulls goalkeeper Carlos Coronel. “He’s frustrated,” admitted his head coach, Xavi Hernandez, after Saturday’s friendly, “but the goals will come.”
A few hours earlier, in Leicester, Pep Guardiola was giving Erling Haaland the same reassurance. Haaland had missed a wonderful chance, fluffed a connection with a cross and ended up on the losing side in his competitive debut for Manchester City, the Community Shield against Liverpool.
“Another time, he will put it in the net,” said Guardiola, the City manager, of his club’s new centre-forward. “It’s good for him to see the reality in a new country and a new league.”
In the country and the league Lewandowski and Haaland have just left, you’ll hear few doubts that the ex-Bayern Munich striker, lured to Barcelona, and the former Dortmund prodigy, signed by City, will rack up plenty of goals in the months to come.
In the Bundesliga, which begins its 60th season on Friday, Haaland and Lewandowski were the outstanding global stars who set breathtaking records.
Lewandowski‘s 41 goals in a single league campaign, set in 2020-21, shattered a landmark that had existed for nearly half a century. Haaland struck a hat-trick on his Bundesliga debut, aged 19, having been introduced as a 56th-minute substitute for Dortmund.
Haaland never looked back: his average strike-rate across his two-and-a-half years in Germany’s top division was better than a goal per game. Ditto Lewandowski’s hit-rate in six of the last seven seasons.
To be deprived of both, one in the mature stage of his career - Lewandowski turns 34 this month - and the other, 22-year-old Haaland, with his future prospects towering, deals a double blow to the the Bundesliga’s prestige, a blow worsened for Dortmund, perpetual challengers for the title by the news that Sebastian Haller, the Ivory Coast striker bought from Ajax to replace Haaland, has been diagnosed with testicular cancer. Haller will undergo chemotherapy and is given a strong chance of full recovery but will be out for several months.
More responsibility, then, on the young shoulders of Karim Adeyemi, who has followed a similar path to Haaland’s to Dortmund: a breakthrough at RB Salzburg in Austria; a step up at a young age - the quicksilver Adeyemi, already a full Germany international, is 20 - to a club renowned for accelerating the progress of precocious footballers.
Last week, as Dortmund beat 1860 Munich 3-0 in the German Cup, Adeyemi found himself making his competitive debut for the club as part of a front six that included three teenagers: the impressive Jude Bellingham, a worldy 19, the prodigy Youssoufa Moukoko, 17, and the English winger Jamie Bynoe-Gittens, who turns 18 next week.
All of them, and the Dortmund head coach, Edin Terzic, who has returned to the club after a previous spell as caretaker, look up at Bayern and see that, even post-Lewandowski, the champions of the last 10 year look very much like champions-elect.
Sadio Mane, recruited from Liverpool, has had no adjustment issues, judging by his competitive debut. Mane scored the second goal in a 5-3 victory over RB Leipzig in the German Super Cup at the weekend. “Outstanding,” said head coach Julian Nagelsmann of Mane’s influence. “He’s down-to-earth, hard-working and a leader in the dressing-room.”
Bayern have strengthened in central defence, with the €67 million ($68.6m) signing from Juventus of Matthijs de Ligt, in midfield and at full-back with the captures, from Ajax, of De Ligt’s Dutch compatriot Ryan Gravenberch and Morocco’s Noussair Mazraoui. “We go into the season feeling good,” said Nagelsmann.
Back in the top flight are wounded giants Werder Bremen and Schalke, the latter still Germany’s third-biggest club by support-base and partially recovered from their disastrous relegation of 2021. They, like Hamburg, former European champions now embarking on a fifth successive season marooned in the second division, are a warning that size guarantees little in a league that, beneath Bayern and Dortmund, can be perilously fluid.
Hertha Berlin, the club from the capital with pretensions of grandeur, must be wary of that. They skirted the drop via a successful promotion-relegation play-off against Hamburg in May, and go into Saturday’s derby against upstarts Union Berlin, fifth last term, having already been knocked out of the Cup by lower-league Eintracht Braunschweig.
Dortmund meet Bayer Leverkusen in a meeting of last season’s second and third-placed clubs, while, on Friday, Bayern kick off matchday one at Eintracht Frankfurt, the Europa League holders and, for that success, one of five Bundesliga clubs who will be in the group stage of the Champions League - evidence that while the star strikers may have left Germany, its league has ample strength in depth.