A new era will dawn at the Audi Sportpark on Saturday afternoon, when FC Ingolstadt 04 face 1. FC Union Berlin on Matchday 1 of the 2. Bundesliga season, as die Schanzer face their first game back in the second division following Bundesliga relegation last campaign.
Last season, plucky underdogs from the get-go, a horror opening three months under newly appointed coach, Markus Kauczinski, saw the Bavarians marooned at the bottom of the Bundesliga. Despite a late rally under the stewardship of Maik Walpurgis, Ingolstadt had succumbed to the drop alongside SV Darmstadt 98 by early May - a far cry from the jubilation of the club record 11th placed finish under Ralph Hasenhüttl, just twelve months earlier.
But there were a number of positives with Walpurgis at the helm and with largely an unchanged squad, full of first and second division experience, Ingolstadt sit as hot favourites amongst bookmakers for an immediate return to the Bundesliga. But will that actually translate into results, or will die Schanzer struggle to adapt to life back in the 2. Bundesliga?
Too little, too late
After Hasenhüttl decided his time with the club was over, leaving for controversial RB Leipzig in August 2016, Ingolstadt had the hard task of replacing a manager who had pioneered their change from perenial 2. Bundesliga strugglers to the heights of an 11th placed Bundesliga finish. The man they chose to replace the outgoing Austrian was the then 46-year-old Kauczinski, as of then Karlsruher SC boss, who had masterminded die KSC's promotion bid in 2015, where only a last second Marcelo Díaz free-kick had been enough to swing the relegation play-off in Hamburger SV's favour.
The course of Summer 2016 was another raft with change in the small Bavarian town, with a number of key faces in Hasenhüttl's squad such as Ramazan Özcan and Benjamin Hübner leaving the Audi Sportpark. Of course, Kauczinski brought in his own players including Robert Leipertz and Florent Hadergjonaj, but despite an opening day draw in Hamburg it didn't translate into results and by the start of November, die Schanzer sat without a Bundesliga victory.
By this time Harald Gärtner and other board members took the decision to relieve Kauczinski of his duties and replace him with the as of then unknown, Walpurgis. Questions were ultimately asked about the decision to appoint someone with no Bundesliga experience, but in his first game in charge of the Black-Reds, Walpurgis masterminded Ingolstadt's first victory of the season away at Darmstadt, courtesy of a Moritz Hartmann volley.
Things were on the up in the small Bavarian town and soon Ingolstadt had notched victories during December against Bayer Leverkusen and Leipzig - in the latter, Roger's early header had condemned the controversial Saxon side to their first defeat in the Bundesliga and allowed Bayern Munich to regain top spot.
However, a string of poor results during the Rückrunde saw Ingolstadt slide closer and closer towards the drop. Despite a late Indian summer, with victories over 1. FSV Mainz 05 and Darmstadt, a draw away at SC Freiburg wasn't enough and Ingolstadt were headed back to the 2. Bundesliga. The disastrous tenure of Kauczinski had hamstrung the club from the get-go, and it was something die Schanzer never recovered from. The likes of Sonny Kittel and Almog Cohen had done their best to save the Bavarians, including a stunning 3-2 derby victory away at FC Augsburg, but it ultimately wasn't enough.
Unlike most teams, Ingolstadt have avoided the wholesale changes to the first team squad that often follows relegation. Only three regular performers under Walpurgis have chosen to ply their trade elsewhere, including Australian international Matthew Leckie who heads to the capital, with Hertha BSC, in a €3 million move after three years with die Schanzer. Newly promoted Barclays Premier League side Brighton and Hove Albion, have also been busy recruiting Ingolstadt players, with both Pascal Groß and Markus Suttner headed to the English South Coast in a combined €7.8 million deal.
More peripheral players such as Lukas Hinterseer, to VfL Bochum, and Roger, to Atletico Mineiro in Brazil, have also been allowed to leave the club. Rumours linking both Marcel Tisserand and Hadergjonaj with moves away from the Audi Sportpark have proved ill-founded as of yet, but are likely to persist until the tranfer window slams shut in early September.
Ingolstadt, however, have been quick to replace these outgoing regulars and have added players either ideally suited to Walpurgis' three-at-the-back system, or those who have the 2. Bundesliga experience to ensure die Schanzer are able to mount their promotion bid from the off. For the later, none more so than the acquisition for around €1.5 million of Stefan Kutschke from 1. FC Nürnberg can come to mind. On loan at Dynamo Dresden last campaign, the 28-year-old scored on 16 occasions and will be expected to replicate it again this season and provide the Bavarian's with the firepower they need to earn promotion. To help with that task, Antonio Colak arrives on loan from TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, having had experience in the second division with Nürnberg and 1. FC Kaiserslautern.
Marcel Gaus arrived from Kaiserslautern, whilst Tobias Schröck made the switch from relegated Würzburger Kickers. The 28-year-old earned a number of plaudits at the Betzenberg last season and looks set to occupy Walpurgis' berth on the left hand side of midfield, while the latter, Schröck, will add the steel in midfield that die Schanzer lost when Roger headed back to his native Brazil. Both seem smart acquisitions, arriving on free transfers.
More recently with just one week before the start of the season, Paulo Otavio made the switch from LASK Linz to die Schanzer. The Brazilian follows a well trodden path from the Alpine state to Bavaria, with Danilo Soares and Hinterseer making similar transfers in recent years, with Otavio expected to provide Gaus with competition on the left flank.
But perhaps Ingolstadt's greatest summer achivement has been to tie down a number of key personel to new long-term contracts. Captain Marvin Matip, as well as Romain Brégerie, Kittel and Cohen have all committed their future to the Bavarian club, whilst Walpurgis himself has extended his and his backroom staff's contract at the Audi Sportpark until 2019.
Off the pitch, Thomas Linke decided to call quits on his six year spell as Ingolstadt Sporting Director and move on to pasture new. His void has been filled internally by the club.
So far, so good during pre-season
Ingolstadt's pre-season was no different from that of a number of Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga clubs, featuring an intensive training camp and a range of friendly matches against varying opponents.
Die Schanzer returned to training on the 24 June and were quickly in action against newly relegated 3. Liga side, Karlsruhe, where they came out 1-0 victors courtesy of a Leipertz strike. Next up was a 2-1 victory over another 3. Liga side, Wehen Wiesbaden, with goals from Darío Lezcano and Leipertz once more. The latter proving one of the largest positives during pre-season for Walpurgis, after an uninspiring 2016/17 campaign following his move from Schalke 04.
Then followed Ingolstadt's official season opening at the Audi Sportpark, where amongst other things the new home shirt was presented whilst a game was held against local Regionalliga Bayern side, VfB Eichstätt, which ended 4-0 in favour of the 2. Bundesliga club.
During the club's training camp, on the Walchsee in the Tirol, Austria, two further matches were held. Against Czech champions, Sparta Prague, goals from Alfredo Morales and Colak were not enough to earn the victory in a 2-2 draw, whilst a goalless draw was shared with Turkish side, Bursaspor SK. A further game against English Championship side, Leeds United, was cancelled at short notice. The muscle injury sustained by Max Christiansen, that will keep the German youth international out for four weeks, perhaps the only negative from Ingolstadt's time on the Walchsee.
Walpurgis said, specifically on the Walchsee training camp, "We've had some very positive matches, at a good level, with regards to the start of the 2. Budesliga season. During the last few days in Tirol, we have been able to make a lot of further, promising progress." The 43-year-old did add, however, "We still have a lot of work to do before the game against Union!"
Ingolstadt's pre-season preparations were rounded off by the visit of Claudio Ranieri's FC Nantes to the Audi Sportpark. A 2-0 victory followed, with goals from Lezcano and Morales, in a resolute performance against the Ligue 1 side that will fill Walpurgis with large optimism with the opener against Union Berlin little more than a week away.
Lezcano and the forward line crucial to success
The news that Paraguayan talisman, Lezcano, had decided to stay at the club was as important to many Ingolstadt supporters as a new signing would be, such is the 27-year-old's importance to die Schanzer. Despite only scoring six times in the Bundesliga, Lezcano impressed with his performances and was largely expected to make a move to Freiburg. However, he has been convinced to stay, with many excited to see what the Paraguayan can condure up in the second division.
The addition of Kutschke as well, will add much needed support for Lezcano, especially if the German striker is able to replicate the 16 goals he provided Dresden with last campaign. Colak and fan-favourite, Hartmann, when back from injury, will also be expected to chip in with a few goals.
It was the inability to score last season that truly jeopardised Ingolstadt's Bundesliga status. Netting just 36 times, only Darmstadt performed worse than die Schanzer. If they are to mount a successful promotion bid this campaign, they realistically have to be looking at almost double that tally. Thus, the pressure will be on Lezcano & co.
Further back, Ingolstadt have possessed a solid defence throughout their promotion and time in the top flight. In their first season in the Bundesliga, during 2015-16, Ingolstadt even shared the joint fouth best defensive record. With largely the same personnel, including Matip and Brégerie, we should see more of the same, which only adds to the imperative that Lezcano and Kutschke do the business at the other end of the pitch.
How Walpurgis may line-up
After being appointed in early November, the former Sportfreunde Lotte and VfL Osnabrück manager, Walpurgis, quickly settled on a three-at-the-back system that he is expected to continue with once again this campaign. The 43-year-old has deployed varying styles of this system in each of Ingolstadt's six pre-season matches, but appears to have settled with the 3-5-2 variation for the beginning of the 2. Bundesliga season.
Club captain, Matip, will once again be a mainstay at the heart of defence for Walpurgis, most likely paired by Brégerie and Tisserand, if the latter doesn't depart Bavaria by the end of the transfer window. The former, Brégerie, is full of 2. Bundesliga experience following spells with Dresden and Darmstadt. Expect young Hauke Wahl to feature regularly as well.
Behind the defence, Martin Hansen is likely to keep Norwegian international, Ørjan Nyland, out of the side. The Dane, Hansen, put in some assured displays after he was handed his chance by Walpurgis in the win at Darmstadt, whilst Nyland posseses the unfortunate stat that he is yet to win a game at the club (in which he has started) after some two years at the Audi Sportpark.
Gaus appears to have nailed down the left-wing-back spot, although Otavio could provide further competition, whilst Cohen, Schröck and Morales will most likely form die Schanzer's central midfield trio. On the right, it is less clear, with both Stefan Lex and Hadergjonaj battling it out for the starting berth. Expect telling contributions from Kittel and Thomas Pledl from the bench, across a variety of midfield positions.
The combination of Kutschke and Lezcano seems almost guaranteed, but such options do provide Walpurgis with a certain amount of tactical flexibility. Ingolstadt have been known to use a 4-3-3 at times, which could quite easily be used with Lezcano taking up a position on the left-wing, with Hartmann on the right, with Kutschke through the middle. The same could be said of a 4-2-3-1, utilising Kittel's technical abilities behind the striker - the former Eintracht Frankfurt man is probably the closest thing to the departing Groß that Walpurgis posesses.
A kind fixture list
Regardless of who takes the field, the Black-Reds will be eager to avoid the same disastrous start that saw them go four months without a Bundesliga victory last season. Yet, as 2. Bundesliga analyst, Jonathan Walsh, suggests, die Schanzer have been treated incredibly kindly by the fixture list in the opening few rounds of fixtures - with their opponents possesing an average finish last season of 10th.
After the visit of Union Berlin on Matchday 1, Walpurgis' side then have six days before they make the trip to face SV Sandhausen under the floodlights on a Friday night. In fact, the visit of Jens Keller's promotion chasing die Eiserne, who finished fourth last campaign, marks the highest placed side from last season to face Ingolstadt within their opening six.
Following a trip to Munich, to face controversial Regionalliga Bayern side 1860 Munich, Ingolstadt host SSV Jahn Regensburg at the Audi Sportpark, in what is the first Danube Derby of the season - something that we have been deprived of since 2013. A trip to a much changed SpVgg Greuther Fürth follows, before Erzgebirge Aue visit Bavaria on Matchday 5. A trip to FC St. Pauli, and the vociferous Millerntor Stadion, will mark and early test of Ingolstadt's character in early September.
There are tough trips to Dresden, Arminia Bielefeld and Nürnberg within four consecutive matches, even more so considering it was the Franconian club that ended die Schanzer's four month unbeaten streak in the 2014/15 season. They kick off the Rückrunde with the visit of Sandhausen, whilst eyes will immediately turn to the return leg of the derby in Regensburg at the end of January.
As Walsh once again suggests, Ingolstadt have it one better with their run in of games with their opposition having an average of a 12th placed finish last campaign - something only St. Pauli can better in the league. Both Bielefeld and Nürnberg visit the Audi Sportpark in April, before a long trip to North-Rhine Westphalia and Fortuna Düsseldorf. Promoted Holstein Kiel travel to Ingolstadt, before what might prove to be a promotion showdown away at last season's defeated relegation playoff side, Eintracht Braunschweig. Ingolstadt finish the season with a home match against Norbert Meier's rejuvenated, Kaiserslautern.
It was Ingolstadt's home form that let them down last campaign, as they secured only seventeen points at the Audi Sportpark during the course of the season, including just four victories. That will have to improve this season, with the visit of promotion chasing Union Berlin perhaps providing an early indicator as to whether that will be the case.
Promotion is the aim
Ingolstadt boss, Maik Walpurgis, admitted before Saturday's match that, "We feel like a giant before kick-off," detailing superbly the expectation that die Schanzer will return to the Bundesliga at the first time of asking. Whilst many at the club will play this down, there is also the expectation around the club that a serious promotion bid should be mustered.
"The feeling of anticipation, together with our fans, is incredibly positive," added the 43-year-old Walpurgis. There is an unusal sense of optimism around the relegated club. If Lezcano and Kutschke can hit their scoring form early on, there is no reason to believe that that anticipation is ill placed. They'll face challenges to that early on, as they face three of the best five defences from last season in Union, Fürth and Sandhausen.
They may lack the history and prowess of other sides, such as Nürnberg and Union, but they certainly have the ability to return to the Bundesliga at the first time of asking. If anything was proven on their last promotion to the Bundesliga, in 2015, expect the unexpected from this plucky Bavarian club.
With one of the best squads in the division, Ingolstadt are hot promotion favourites. Come early May, the Bavarian side will be hoping that that has translated into results, and that a return to the Bundesliga is pencilled in for the start of the 2018/19 season.
Quotes and stats via FC Ingolstadt 04 and @jonathanwalsh_