After suffering a cruel end to last season's promising campaign, Bayer Levekusen's young team looks to launch another title challenge. The club hopes Michael Ballack can inspire the team to forget its disappointment.
Ballack is back at the club where he excelled as a youth
If only last season could have ended at Christmas.
Bayer Leverkusen would not have just been celebrating a 3-2 victory over Borussia Moenchengladbach but they would have been lifting the championship shield in front of their own fans after being crowned worthy winners of the Bundesliga. They would have been undefeated champions, pipping second-placed Schalke to the title by a point.
Leverkusen fans don't need to be reminded of what happened after the winter break, how the dream of their first ever title lasted a mere six weeks into 2010 before a goalless draw at home to Cologne, followed by a 3-2 away defeat to Nuremberg, starting the descent to fourth where they finished the season proper in May.
Leverkusen painfully ran out of steam in a title race they led from the eighth week to the 23rd. A team predominantly built around a host of talented youngsters with a few old heads thrown in for experience, Leverkusen used that youthful exuberance to propel them to the top of the league and keep them there for almost half of the season. Often they reached sublime heights for such a young team, and often showed steel to avoid defeat in tricky circumstances. But it wasn't to last.
The defeat to Nuremberg in March, their first in the league, knocked the belief out of them. The four defeats and three draws that followed told a story of a team running on empty, mentally and physically.
Even experienced players like Sami Hyypiae, Manuel Friedrich and Hans Sarpei couldn't find the inspiration to push Leverkusen's youngsters into the final, desperate push as their title hopes faded. Once more they finished the season empty-handed. Bayer Never-kusen had blown it again.
So what is Coach Jupp Heynckes doing to make sure that any assault on the summit this season doesn't end up running out of oxygen and slipping back down to base camp?
Ballack to add bite and belief to disappointed Leverkusen
Ballack's return can help his new team get over last season
The most obvious move Heynckes and Sporting Director Rudi Voeller have made to ensure there is heart and bite in a team which looked weak and toothless is to add Michael Ballack to its ranks.
Getting a midfielder of Ballack's experience and standing on a free transfer from Chelsea has been something of a coup for Leverkusen, the club where he spent three seasons between 1999 and 2002.
In the time he's been away, Ballack has collected three Bundesliga titles, three German Cups and a League Cup with Bayern Munich as well as one Premiership title and three FA Cups in England.
He's also increased his level of Champions League participation, although the coveted trophy continues to elude him. Ballack has put his reputation as the eternal runner-up behind him and become a winner, both literally and mentally.
Ballack also knows what it feels like to be in a championship-chasing Bayer Leverkusen team and how it feels to lose that race. He will know exactly how the team around him will be feeling when Leverkusen start the coming campaign in earnest.
All this experience will be hugely valuable. Leverkusen need to come out fighting this season, not timidly take to the field with bruises and wounds from the previous fight still unhealed.
Ballack has tasted his fair share of bitter disappointment and won't stand for anyone wallowing in the past. He is the ideal player to pick this team up and set them on their way again with belief.
Heynckes and Voeller will be hoping that Ballack is hurting, to a certain extent, after missing out on the World Cup and facing a battle to regain the captaincy of the national team.
Wounded pride has always been a strong motivator for the man from Chemnitz and Leverkusen will also benefit if Ballack pulls on the shirt every week believing he has something to prove. Those players around him will need to feel that desire too.
Leverkusen's midfield loses Toni Kroos to Bayern Munich
More in than out as Heynckes boosts young team
Leverkusen will need Ballack's authority in a midfield shorn of the talents of youngster Toni Kroos, who has moved back to Bayern Munich from where he was on loan. Another returning Leverkusen player and former Ballack teammate, Hanno Balitsch, will give the team further midfield options after switching from Hanover as will the 21-year-old Marcel Risse, a summer signing from Nuremberg.
Another 21-year-old, Croatian midfielder Domagoj Vida, joins from NK Osijek while Sidney Sam from Kaiserslautern has been signed to boost Leverkusen's attacking options.
The Leverkusen fans will be glad that, so far, their club has been investing more than offloading. As well as Kroos, Leverkusen have only sold on the experienced Polish midfielder Tomasz Zdebel to Alemannia Aachen while defender Lukas Sinkiewicz has moved to Augsburg.
It will mostly be the team that ran the championship race from October to March last time and which will be hoping to stay the course to the end of this season.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Turner