Two of Germany's top teams have a humbling season ahead in the Uefa Cup.

GERMAN football is at the crossroads after a Bundesliga season that concluded with heavy hitters Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen made to consume copious amount of humble pies as they await the commencement of the Uefa Cup next season. Noble gesture or not, Bayern even congratulated freshly crowned German football champions VfB Stuttgart via full-page ads in local papers on Tuesday.

“Congratulations VfB! We congratulate you on the title and promise a big fight for the trophy next season,” Bayern said in the ad published in the Stuttgarter Zeitung and Stuttgarter Nachrichten dailies.

In the Bundesliga, the “guard of honour” concept is tweaked rather differently, apparently.

Champions VfB Stuttgart, runners up Schalke 04 and third-placed Werder Bremen may not fill their counterparts from the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A with trepidation but if the trio had thumbed the nose of the Bundesliga's established order, they would be taken lightly at their rivals' own peril.

The presence of these less heralded German clubs in Europe's most prestigious competition almost defies the theory that a club needs to invest an obscene amount of money to succeed.

The successes of Schalke, Stuttgart and Bremen have not only sidelined Bayern, the standard bearers for German football both locally and in Europe, and Leverkusen but demonstrates the improved quality of the Bundesliga.

Ottmar Hitzfeld's Bayern were doomed to fourth position even before last weekend while Leverkusen, managed by Michael Skibbe, were made to scrap for a last minute Champions League ticket. In the summer, Hitzfeld and Skibbe have monumental challenges ahead of them.

Both need to tear down their teams and put together virtually new ones to re-establish their mark on the local league before entertaining ideas of progressing in the Uefa Cup.

Hitzfeld, who has declared that he would leave at the end of Season 2007/08, has a tougher task than Skibbe in forming a first eleven capable of mounting a title quest. Hitzfeld would oversee the departures of a handful of players, seasoned stars of his championship-winning side of the late 1990s and at the turn of the millennium, before he can get down to the business end.

The transfer saga of Owen Hargreaves would thankfully find its tedious end at Old Trafford while Mehmet Scholl had announced his retirement but the midfielders are only two of at least half a dozen who are due to be off-loaded to make way for Hitzfeld's new side.

Claudio Pizarro, a free agent in the summer; has been earmarked by Chelsea and Juventus plus a number of clubs from Spain for a switch. His fellow striker Roque Santa Cruz is wanted by Real Betis and there are doubts over the Allianz Arena career of Roy Makaay.

It is likely that Bayern will not only be parading a new strike force but a restructured and aggressive midfield and defence, if the calls of veteran goalkeeper Oliver Kahn are heeded. Alemannia Aachen goal-getter Jan Schlaudraff, Schalke's Turkish midfielder Hamit Altintop and Argentine midfielder Jose Ernesto Sosa from Estudiantes de La Plata have already signed up and there will be more additions in the next two months – Deco of Barcelona and Fiorentina's Luca Toni are just two of the most exciting names mentioned.

Leverkusen were similarly troubled by under performing key players, never recovered from the loss of Dimitar Berbatov and now face a busy close season after Skibbe's men almost threw away their comfortable top four status in the last few weeks of the season. Skibbe was unable to rally his troops for a double aim of making progress in the Uefa Cup (Osasuna beat them last month in the quarterfinals) and ensuring that the Werkself (Factory Squad) do not miss the Uefa Cup boat.

Earlier this month, the club's sports director and German legend Rudi Voller slammed want-away utility player Marko Babic and striker Andrej Voronin, the club's number one goal-poacher and a Liverpool player in the summer, for their scant contributions to Leverkusen's struggle.

Babic and Voronin head the exit queue at the BayArena and they are expected to be joined by goalkeeper Hans-Jorg Butt and defender Juan, who is reportedly bound for AS Roma. Leverkusen have started rebuilding for the next campaign with the recent acquisitions of Wolfsburg's Ghanaian defensive midfielder Hans Adu Sarpei and Greek striker Theofanis Gekas, the top marksman for Bochum and the Bundesliga with 20 strikes.

As both do not have Champions League incentives to offer prospective employees, their supporters would be anxious that the talented youngsters at the clubs come through at the right time and step into the vacuum left by their seniors. The only certainty is that Bayern and Leverkusen would fish in the local pond while Skibbe and Hitzfeld have their work cut out for them as they prepare to bait A-list footballers to revive their ailing clubs.
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