Darmstadt are again one of the favorites to be relegated this season. But with a new coach and a very different side to the one that surprisingly avoided the drop last term, the Lillies are out to defy the odds again.
The Lillies surprised many by avoiding the drop in their first season in the Bundesliga in 33 years, but after the departure of coach Dirk Schuster, repeating the feat in 2016-17 promises to be much more difficult. Not only is the man who led Darmstadt from division 3 to the Bundesliga gone, but they also lost several key players over the summer. When coach Norbert Meier signed on at the end of June, the team's senior roster included just 12 outfield players. This kept sporting director Holger Fach busy all summer, as he looked to cobble together a competitive squad in time for the start of the season. Among thoes to leave were Sandro Wagner, Slobodan Rajkovic, Konstantin Rausch, and Luca Caldirola who returned to Bremen following his spell on loan in Darmstadt.
Transfers: Looking for bargains
While financially mightier clubs would likely have splashed the cash to rebuild their roster, Darmstadt, who play their home matches at the antiquated Böllenfalltor stadium, are forced to count every penny, looking for underrated bargains on the transfer market. This is what Fach has done, bringing in players that are far from household names, but are keen to seize the opportunity of gaining playing time in the Bundesliga. Among them are the Ukrainian duo of Denys Oliynyk and Denys Fedetsky, former Nigeria player Victor Obinna and Hungary international Laszlo Kleinheisler, who has come in on loan from Werder Bremen. After having spent last season out on loan at second-divison side Kaiserslautern, former Croatia under-20 striker Antonio Colak has moved to Darmstadt, also on loan from Hoffenheim. At the same time, former Hoffenheim forward Sven Schipplock has come in on loan from Hamburg. However, it will be a tall order for either one of them to adequately replace the departed Sandro Wagner. In their most recent signing, the Lillies have also brought in Sweden defender Alexander Milosevic on a year-long loan from Besiktas.
Head coach: Norbert Meier
After Dirk Schuster decided to try his luck in Augsburg, Darmstadt moved quickly to sign a coach with a wealth of experience, but limited success in the Bundesliga. Norbert Meier, 57, has had spells with Borussia Mönchengladbach, Dynamo Dresden and most recently with third-division side Arminia Bielefeld. His biggest successes were leading Duisburg and Fortuna Düsseldorf to promotion to the Bundesliga in 2005 and 2012 respectively. However, in both cases he wound up getting sacked within a year. Prior to this season, some bookmakers made him one of the favorites to be the first Bundesliga coach during the upcoming campaign to be given his marching orders.
Key man: Yet to emerge?
Sporting director Fach and coach Meier will be hoping that one of the new signings will emerge as the key figure. The once-promising Obinna will be looking to get back on track after several seasons of mediocrity. Colak will be hoping to use the opportunity to finally break through in the top flight. Marcel Heller, a key holdover from 2015-16, had made noises about wanting to move early in the summer, but the club turned down his transfer request. It will be interesting to see how he reacts to being forced to spend another year in the south of the state of Hesse. Then of course, there is the captain, Aytak Sulu, who joined the Lillies while they were still in the third division. Darmstadt will need him to continue to stand tall on the back line and if he can duplicate the seven goals he contributed to the offense last season, coach Meier should be more than happy.
What to expect: Avoiding relegation would be a masterstroke by Meier
With all of the players Darmstadt have lost, and without the mastermind of their surprising success not just last season, but through their entire march into the top flight from the third division, the Lillies go into the season as one of the top relegation candidates. The new coach has taken charge of a very different team from last season and a lot of his job will be to try to form a unit out of so many new parts as quickly as possible. They have some tricky games to open the season; against Cologne, Hesse state rivals Frankfurt, Dortmund, and Hoffenheim, before their first encounter with Augsburg under Schuster. However, that opening schedule could be much worse, and if they do manage to collect a few points during this early phase of the season, this may set them up for a real battle against the drop. Should they fail to do so, this campaign could be the last we see of them in the Bundesliga for some time.