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Tuesday, June 02, 2020

As Bundesliga returns with ‘ghost games’, Bayern Munich eye eighth straight title

With cardboard fans, piped atmosphere, masks in the dugout, and elbow bumping celebrations, the Bundesliga is set to be the first major European league to hit the ground running on Saturday.

Written by Debkalpa Banerjee | Updated: May 17, 2020 10:00:22 pm
Bundesliga will resume its campaign on Saturday at the Signal Iduna Park. (Source: Reuters)

South Korea and Faroe Islands were the first of the blocks, but the resumption of the Bundesliga on Saturday will finally reawaken the football-deprived fanatics of the world from their two-month slumber.

After receiving the green signal from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the German Football League (DFL) announced the resumption of the league on May 7. The fixtures subsequently released indicated that Borussia Dortmund’s clash against Schalke 04 will be the reopening fixture at the famed Signal Iduna Park, but without its 82,000 fans in attendance. 

With less than 300 people allowed in the stadiums (including players, coaches, officials, and media), the Revierderby will be played as a ‘ghost game‘ with no handshakes and minimal physical contact. On paper, Dortmund are the favourites, having won seven of their last eight matches, but the absence of players like Marco Reus, Axel Witsel, and Emre Can, and the famous ‘Yellow Wall’ might affect them.

Even though Bundesliga’s exuberant fan culture is a vital cog in the machinery, the conclusion of the ongoing season behind closed doors was deemed necessary by the authorities because of the potentially crippling financial impact from the broadcasting deals. So with unusual arrangements — Borussia Mönchengladbach’s cardboard fans, an app-based piped crowd noise, substitutes with masks on, and somber elbow bumping celebrations — the league will play its final nine rounds of matches with the final matchday taking place on June 27.

The DFL also decided Thursday that Bundesliga teams will be allowed up to five substitutions per match. Short-term venue changes and continuance of the season beyond the scheduled finish date will also be permitted if necessary.

THE TITLE RACE

Bayern Munich are four points clear at the top on their way to their 30th title.

In the pursuit of their eighth successive title, Bayern Munich faced hiccups early in the season. Under previous manager Niko Kovac, Bayern were at seventh in December last year, but after 10 wins and a draw from 11 league matches under Hansi Flick, the Bavarians soared back to the top of the table in mid-March.

But it is far from over for Bayern (55 points), as Borussia Dortmund (51), RB Leipzig (50), and Borussia Mönchengladbach (49) are all within six points of the reigning champions. As a matter of fact, Monchengladbach led the standings for much of the fall and are hoping to break their 43-year-long title drought. Put simply: one upset, and the Bundesliga will see a close finish.

As for the 2020/21 UEFA Champions League, the top four will have automatic qualification, while fifth and sixth will head to UEFA Europa League next season.

READ | ‘Ghost games’ set to haunt fans after Bundesliga restart

THE RELEGATION BATTLE

Werder Bremen have spent a record 56 seasons in the Bundesliga but that might soon come to an end as they sit in the relegation zone, four points behind the play-off spot, with a game in hand. The club has lost 11 of their last 14 matches, and it could be a tragic fall for a club that launched the careers of Mesut Özil and Per Mertesacker.

Paderborn sit at the bottom of the table with just one point from their last 18, and will require teams like FSV Mainz, FC Augsburg, Hertha Berlin, and Eintracht Frankfurt to stumble if they are to survive. On the other hand, Union Berlin are arguably the only team in Bundesliga with nothing to fight for — sitting more than six points away from relegation and European places.

PLAYERS TO WATCH OUT FOR

Jadon Sancho and Alphonso Davies have made themselves household names. (Source: Reuters)

Bundesliga has always been renowned for its fast-paced, dynamic style of football fuelled by its vast array of world-class players. Looking beyond the usual suspects who lead the charts — Robert Lewandowski with most goals (25), Thomas Müller with most assists (16), and Manuel Neuer with most clean sheets (10) — there are other talents who have everything to play for.

Borussia Dortmund’s teenage striker Erling Håland arrived in January and conquered the league in no time with the best minutes-per-goal ratio in the league (57). His partner-in-crime, Jadon Sancho has more goal contributions than any other player in Bundesliga with 14 goals and 15 assists this season.

In their rival camp, RB Leipzig have in-demand finisher Timo Werner, who has scored 21 goals this season, as well as creative sparks Christopher Nkunku and Marcel Sabitzer. On the other hand, Bayer Leverkusen will bank on their wonder-kid Kai Havertz for UEFA Champions League qualification.

Last, but not the least, Bayern Munich’s 19-year-old Canadian sensation Alphonso Davies has made the left-back position his this season and even dismantled Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League pre-quarterfinals.

MARQUEE MATCHES

Matchday 26: Borussia Dortmund vs. Schalke 04 (May 16)

Matchday 27: Borussia Mönchengladbach vs. Bayer Leverkusen (May 23)

Matchday 28: Borussia Dortmund vs. Bayern Munich (May 26)

Matchday 30: Bayer Leverkusen vs. Bayern Munich (June 6)

Matchday 31: Bayern Munich vs. Borussia Mönchengladbach (June 13)

Matchday 33: RB Leipzig vs. Borussia Dortmund (June 20)

Matchday 34: Wolfsburg vs. Bayern Munich (June 27)

READ | DFB targeting July 4 Pokal final, May 29 restart for Frauen-Bundesliga

Although DFL CEO Christian Seifert believes that Bundesliga will be played on probation, the questions are quite real. Will Bundesliga have a new champion for the first time in seven years? How can Lucien Favre or Julian Nagelsmann outwit Hansi Flick? Who gets the last Champions League spot? Can Timo Werner pip Robert Lewandowski for the Golden Boot? Everything remains to be seen.

From May 16, all Bundesliga matches will be telecasted on Star Sports and Hotstar.

THE STORY SO FAR

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