1:58 PM ET
- • Joined ESPN in 2011
• Covered two Olympics, a pair of Rugby World Cups and two British & Irish Lions tours
• Previously rugby editor, and became senior writer in 2018
The stands were eerily quiet, but the script played out predictably on the pitch as Erling Haaland made the headlines again as the Bundesliga became the first of Europe’s top leagues to return after being postponed due to COVID-19.
It’s been a long time between goals and games. Prior to Saturday’s action, the last time we saw the Bundesliga was on March 11, but as the rest of the continent watched on, Haaland was the first player to score in the return of the German top flight after the break as he helped Borussia Dortmund to a 4-0 win over fierce rivals Schalke.
Usually the game is played out in front of a packed Westfalenstadion, but the famous Yellow Wall stood empty as the Revierderby played out behind closed doors. One question posed during the week was whether football is really football without fans? The supporters did their bit and stayed away. Within the confines of the empty grounds, at first glance, it looked like social distancing rules were being respected with goal celebrations awkward and players sat on the bench with masks pulled over their faces and contact kept to elbow or ankle taps.
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The Bundesliga remains on “parole,” as its CEO Christian Seifert said, but this was a hugely promising first step back as football negotiates its new reality.
What is football without fans?
When the team buses, two each for the teams, pulled in into the Westfalenstadion, there were only a few journalists, some stewards and a couple of police waiting outside. Usually, the Strobelallee in front of the Dortmund stadium is buzzing hours before kickoff. Fans from the opposing sides fly their colours and sometimes you can hear them shouting at each other. On Saturday, there was nothing but silence.
“It’s a bit surreal,” Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke told Sky Germany in a prematch interview. “Over the last two hours, I got text messages from all over the world. They all wrote they’d be sitting at home and watching us play. But driving through the city, there was nothing.”
The derby between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04 is the biggest and fiercest in the Bundesliga. With the two stadiums only 32 kilometres apart, on a matchday, the Ruhrgebiet — an industrial part of Germany — is about nothing else but the match. More than 80,000 make the pilgrimage to the stadium and fill it with their noise. But there are no fans at the Geisterspiele (ghost games), and their absence could be felt at the derby and everywhere else in Germany.
“It will be interesting to see who can focus just on the game,” Schalke coach David Wagner had said prematch. “We trained only for seven, eight days. We have no idea what will happen on the grass.”
The derby was played in a laboratory and Dortmund got the better out of their rivals for the first time in almost five years, but there was no one out on the streets to celebrate.
Football without fans is nothing, the fans in Germany say. The public opinion in recent days had turned against the return of football. Fans accused the Bundesliga of ignoring, sometimes even blackmailing them by claiming that the league had to return without fans to survive. At Augsburg, a banner was on show inside the stadium, which read: “Football will survive, your business is sick!” It summed up the hardcore fans’ attitude, but also that of many of the mainstream in recent weeks.
Dortmund players still went to the Yellow Wall (normally 25k fans) and applauded the empty stand as a symbol of their appreciation and thoughts for the fans. 👏👏 pic.twitter.com/edBQORGe84
— Stu Holden (@stuholden) May 16, 2020
Earlier in the day, during the early stages of the Erzgebirge Aue vs. SV Sandhausen match, you could hear the players shouting at the referee. “Do you have a whistle on you?” one player asked and another, following the early red card for Sandhausen’s Dennis Diekmeier, wondered whether the referee was crazy. It was another kind of football. And it felt strange.
“It was very, very special,” Dortmund coach Lucien Favre said in the virtual postmatch news conference. “There’s no noise, you create a chance, you play a top pass, a goal and … nothing. It’s very, very weird. We miss our fans very much. It was just a very different match.” Over in Leipzig, Freiburg coach Christian Streich said: “It’s sad the folks are not in the stadium. It’s nothing that will last.”
Injuries remain a concern
Bundesliga players only returned to full team training some 10 days ago. Amid the pandemic, they did not play test matches and jumped right in. With Dan-Axel Zagadou and Marco Reus out with long-term injuries, midfielders Emre Can and Axel Witsel already missing Dortmund’s match against Schalke, and on matchday Jadon Sancho was benched with calf problems.
Steve Nicol explains why Gio Reyna’s injury was compounded by Thorgan Hazard’s stellar game.
Sancho was brought on as a late substitute as he replaced Thorgan Hazard, who himself picked up knock.
With players not match fit, some of them not even training fit, the next few weeks until the completion of the Bundesliga also require a lot of man-managing skills by the coaches to avoid a spike in injuries and even more so during the crucial final match days. The experience of the new normality in Bundesliga will bring back fitness bit by bit, but any injury now could rule out players until the end of the season.
Old habits remain for celebrations
Some teams coped better than others with the advisory over celebrations. With players told to respect social distancing etiquette during celebrations and asked not to form their usual huddle of back-tapping and hugging, some goal scorers celebrated on their own, looking back slightly sheepishly at their distant teammates was a strange sight. Some joked during the week that players would be spending most of their week practising these new celebrations, and Dimitrij Nazarov certainly had his down to a T as after he slotted his early penalty for 2. Bundesliga’s Erzgebirge Aue against Sandhausen, he ran to the side of the pitch, sat down and applauded as the one-man crowd.
— International Champions Cup (@IntChampionsCup) May 16, 2020
Back in the Bundesliga it was always going to be the prolific Haaland who’d get the first goal back and his well-rehearsed celebration — standing and dancing on his own with teammates watching on from a couple of metres back — was seamless. “It’s like it is. We stick to the rules or at least try,” Dortmund midfielder Julian Brandt said on Sky after the match.
But there were still the old instincts. Renato Steffen scored a superb header for Wolfsburg and ran away from his encroaching teammates to celebrate, and allowed himself a fist bump or two. And the worst perpetrators were at Hertha Berlin as they stuck three on hosts Hoffenheim. As they celebrated their second goal against the hosts, it was just like February 2020 as the players mobbed Vedad Ibisevic after his delicate headed goal. Then one player reminded his other joyful teammates of protocol and they awkwardly separated. But all etiquette went out the window for their third as they celebrated Matheus Cunha‘s wonderful solo effort.
It had to be Haaland
It had to be Erling Haaland. The Norwegian wunderkind finally put the Bundesliga back on the scoring sheet nearly 30 minutes into the derby against Schalke. It was a classic goal from Haaland, who made a few quick steps to beat his opponents to a cross from Hazard.
He had scored those goals before, usually set up by Achraf Hakimi, the league’s fastest player. Far from a finished product, the striker regardless set the Bundesliga on fire since his arrival from FC Salzburg in January. He now has 10 in just nine Bundesliga games for Dortmund.
With the clock ticking down before halftime, Haaland forced Schalke keeper Markus Schubert into an error by pressing him high. Seconds later, BVB had doubled the score and after half-time had his hand in Dortmund’s final two goals as well.
With RB Leipzig splitting points with Freiburg, Dortmund look to be the only team challenging Bayern Munich for the title, and they could not have started better than with a 4-0 win against Schalke. They have now won 24 of a possible 27 points in the second half of the Bundesliga season, the Ruckrunde.
Leipzig and Werner falter on return
A late VAR intervention for offside stopped Freiburg from taking all three points at RB Leipzig’s Red Bull Arena, leaving the title hopefuls with an unwelcome 1-1 draw on the league’s return as they continued their pre-hiatus miserable run of form. Freiburg thought they’d won it at in the dying embers with Robin Koch scoring, only for it to be ruled out for offside.
Leipzig should never have been in this position, having squandered three clear goal-scoring opportunities. It was only after 77 minutes they eventually breached Freiburg’s defence as Yussuf Poulsen scored to make it one apiece. With the much-coveted Timo Werner starting brightly and testing the Freiburg goalkeeper early on with a stinger of a shot, he failed to make a dent on the scoreboard. It was a sign of things to come as second-half substitute Ademola Lookman missed from six yards while Poulson headed over and Patrik Schick failed to convert late on with time and space about 8 yards out. The result means they are now four points adrift of Bayern Munich with the league leaders also a game in hand to the good.
While Leipzig faltered, Borussia Monchengladbach pounced to leapfrog them into third thanks to a 3-1 win at Eintracht Frankfurt — quite how Martin Hinteregger pulled off the remarkable late goal-line clearance to prevent it from being four only he knows. Alassane Plea opened the scoring after just 36 seconds with the much-admired Marcus Thuram doubling the lead eight minutes later with a close-range tap-in. They kept control in the second half with Ramy Bensebaini adding a penalty — one of the benefits of empty stands is being able to hear contact and while Frankfurt’s Evan N’Dicka protested, you heard him crash into Breel Embolo. Monchengladbach’s impressive form will cause some concern in Leipzig.
A quiet return for the U.S. contingent
It wasn’t a great returning weekend for the American contingent in the Bundesliga.
Reyna was going to get much of the attention after being named in Dortmund’s starting lineup but succumbed to injury, while Tyler Adams had one half chance for Leipzig before being replaced after 69 minutes. For Wolfsburg, John Brooks’ own goal (under pressure from a corner, he powered a header back on to his own crossbar and in) drew the game level with Augsburg early in the second half, though his team would go on the win 2-1. Elsewhere, Alfredo Morales got 22 minutes off the bench for Fortuna Dusseldorf against Paderborn but failed to break the deadlock as they hit the woodwork three times but ended up drawing 0-0. Fabian Johnson and Zack Steffen missed out through injury while Ulysses Llanez was left out of the Wolfsburg squad. Timothy Chandler came on after 74 minutes for Eintracht Frankfurt and brought plenty of energy but was powerless to help his team as they lost 3-1 to visitors Borussia Monchengladbach. Chris Richards’ Bayern Munich play Sunday while Josh Sargent could feature for Werder Bremen Monday.
As the early shots came in from the 2. Bundesliga matches, you saw VfL Bochum’s replacements sat in the stands, with their masks pulled down. It was all very new. At the Dortmund-Schalke derby, Dortmund’s replacements sat on separate chairs, on their own. Some players across the Bundesliga chose to warm up with masks on, others didn’t.
— Lutz Pfannenstiel (@1_LPfannenstiel) May 16, 2020
Manager etiquette was one of the subplots heading into the weekend’s action with Augsburg’s Heiko Herrlich absent after he contravened quarantine rules during the week when he left the team’s base to buy toothpaste. The pre-match manager interviews were a strange spectacle with the interviewer and coach two metres apart. The Bundesliga microphones were covered in protective plastic. At half-time in Leipzig, you saw Julian Nagelsmann put on his mask to address Lookman, while Hertha Berlin’s new manager Bruno Labbadia marked their third goal at Hoffenheim by jogging down the touchline, without his mask, calling on his players to stay focused.
With Bundesliga clubs allowed to use five substitutions, three of the 12 teams in action on Saturday used the full allowance. Teams were restricted to using their changes across just three windows, and the tempo of the match did not suffer as a result of the increased allocation.