The stands were eerily quiet as the Bundesliga became the first of Europe's top leagues to resume after being postponed due to coronavirus, but the script played out predictably on the pitch as Erling Haaland made headlines on Saturday before Bayern Munich's machine clicked back into gear the following day.
It had been a long time between goals and games -- the last time we saw Bundesliga action was on March 11 -- but as the rest of the world watched on, Haaland was the first player to score in the German top flight's return, with his goal setting Borussia Dortmund to a 4-0 win over fierce rivals Schalke 04 in one of the strangest Revierderby games ever played.
With Dortmund's famous Yellow Wall among the many stands that stood empty, supporters did what was asked of them and stayed away as the question of whether football is really football without fans was debated. Within the empty stadiums, social distancing rules were largely respected; goal celebrations were awkward, players sat on the bench with masks over their faces and contact was kept to elbow or ankle taps.
The Bundesliga remains on "parole," as its CEO Christian Seifert said last week, but this was a hugely promising first step back as football gets to grips with its "new normal."
Sunday: Bayern back to business | Davies does his part | Havertz at the double | No goat, lots of VAR | Soder's celebration warning
Saturday: Football without fans | It had to be Haaland | Celebration habits remain | Injuries a concern | Leipzig, Werner falter | U.S. stars | Bench etiquette
Business as usual for Bayern
After Borussias Dortmund and Monchengladbach turned up the pressure with wins on Saturday with wins against Schalke 04 and Eintracht Frankfurt respectively, Bayern Munich once again showed they are not interested in a title race with a straightforward win at Union Berlin.
The 29-time German champions started slowly as they got accustomed to the unusual atmosphere at the Alte Försterei, but had control throughout the 90 minutes and never ran into danger of dropping points. As a result, they again lead the standings by four points.
Coach Hansi Flick, who was made permanent boss during the break, countered Berlin's aerial threat by opting for the height of Leon Goretzka in central midfield, with Thomas Muller playing wide instead of Kingsley Coman. Meanwhile, €80 million signing Lucas Hernandez was on the bench wearing a mask as Jerome Boateng got a start in his hometown.
Muller found the net after 18 minutes, but referee Bastian Dankert consulted the VAR and the calibrated lines ruled the World Cup winner offside. Five minutes before half-time, though, ex-Dortmund defender Neven Subotic brought down Goretzka and Robert Lewandowski converted the penalty for his 26th league goal of the season.
When France international Benjamin Pavard added a second goal, heading home from a corner with 10 minutes left, Bayern's job was done. In nine days, they travel to BVB's Westfalenstadion, where they could take a decisive step toward their eighth consecutive title. It is theirs to lose, again.
Davies does his part
Alphonso Davies said recently that it would take him a game or two to rediscover his rhythm, but even after long break from competitive football of more than two months, he caused Union Berlin all sorts of difficulty down the left side.
Regarded as one of the world's most exciting young talents, expectation continues to grow around Davies, but this display showed the 19-year-old's maturity as he played with controlled energy, waiting like a coiled spring to pounce through the Union backline in a game that was essentially attack against defence.
The Canadian international got past his marker three times in the first half to put in crosses that were scrambled away and combined neatly with Lewandowski to nearly put Muller away in the second period.
Davies did collect a first-half yellow card for a poorly timed challenge, but was diligent in attack and defence and got the full 90 minutes under his belt. Book May 26 into your diaries for Dortmund vs. Bayern Munich and a showdown that sees Achraf Hakimi and Jadon Sancho go up against Davies and Serge Gnabry.
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Havertz at the double
He might not have the profile of playing for a major club like Davies or Haland, but Leverkusen midfielder Kai Havertz did his reputation no harm with an outstanding audition in front of fans from all over the world, scoring twice in a 4-1 win at Werder Bremen that boosted his side's Champions League hopes.
Leverkusen sporting director Simon Rolfes told ESPN FC last week that "it's just fun watching him" and playing as a false nine -- think Michael Ballack meets Mesut Ozil -- Havertz showed why many believe he will become Germany's most expensive player either this year or next, making light of any thought he would crack under the pressure of rumours linking him with a €100 million transfer to Bayern Munich, Barcelona or Real Madrid.
Playing to his right of the 20-year-old was Florian Wirtz, who became the Bundesliga's third-youngest player at 17 years and 15 days. The attacking midfielder only joined from local rivals FC Cologne in January, much to the annoyance of his former club where he spent 10 years, but Leverkusen were able to offer the vision of a Champions League future and Wirtz showed his promise during his hour of action.
Meanwhile, sitting in the stand was the league's youngest-ever player. Nuri Sahin was 16 years and 334 days old when he first played for Dortmund; 15 years later and with his contract expiring after the season, he is hoping not to experience relegation for the first time. Bremen are none points from safety with nine games remaining.
- Schoenfeld: Havertz destined for stardom
No goat for Cologne, but VAR rears its head
The DFL's special match guidelines permit more than 300 people to enter a stadium, but a goat handler is not one of them, so Cologne mascot "Hennes" was not pitchside -- breaking a streak that dated back to one of his predecessors in 2008 -- when his club played out an entertaining 2-2 draw with Mainz on Sunday.
Without their lucky charm, some 1,300 Cologne season-ticket holders were allowed to place shirts, scarves and other items on seats to create a static tifo. The circumstances, then, were quite different from a normal match day, but then VAR served a reminder that some things do not change.
Those watching at home had time to get a drink as referee Guido Winkmann decided to award a penalty to Cologne after just four minutes into the match. The long check did prove correct, following an incident on Saturday that saw the VAR correctly rule out what would have been Freiburg's late winner at Leipzig due to offside.
VAR has changed the way fans can feel hard done by, in that they have more people to blame, and these "ghost games" mean the referee's contact with those watching reviews is sometimes audible. In Bundesliga 2, officials felt the ire of former Bundesliga champions VfB Stuttgart followers after their club's promotion hopes were hit by a 97th-minute, VAR-influenced penalty at SV Wehen Wiesbaden.
Phillip Tietz's successful spot kick was notable also for sparking scenes that saw Wiesbaden forget about instructions to avoid group celebrations. Speaking of which...
Soder sounds a celebration warning
While a great deal went well in the six games played on the Bundesliga's first day back, one incident led a key political decision-maker in Germany to send another reminder that the league's ongoing status remains at the mercy of politics and is conditional upon protocols being followed.
Hertha Berlin's surprise 3-0 win at Hoffenheim was perhaps most notable for the way jubilant players interacted with each other, with goals celebrated as if the coronavirus never happened.
The lack of social distancing contradicted instructions given to clubs in a 51-page medical and organisational paper released by the DFL, which laid out guidelines on how infections could be avoided on the pitch. It also went against instructions in which players were reminded they are role models and advised to refrain from celebrating as a group.
The league confirmed that no action will be taken and it looked as if everything was about to cool down, but then Markus Soder, Bavaria's powerful minister president and a strong candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor, made a television appearance on Sunday.
"I did not like that," Soder said on Sport1. "They should at least be more careful in the next couple of weeks. Other clubs did not have those problems."
Hertha have not been Soder's favourite club in recent weeks. The return of football had been his project, and Berlin forward Salomon Kalou put it in jeopardy when broadcasting a livestream from the dressing room, which showed several breaches of new rules.
Later on Sunday, Hertha coach Bruno Labbadia, who said after the match that "goal celebrations are part of football," insisted "we did not break any rules." His side is certainly under scrutiny after playing a part in some of Saturday's bigger storylines.
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.
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."
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.
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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.
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.
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, but the worst perpetrators were from Hertha Berlin as they stuck three on hosts Hoffenheim.
As Hertha players mobbed Vedad Ibisevic after his delicate headed goal made it 2-0, it was like February, or any other pre-COVID month. Then one player reminded his other joyful teammates of protocol and they awkwardly separated. Protocol went out the window again after the third, though, as they celebrated Matheus Cunha's wonderful solo effort.
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.
It should have been Giovanni Reyna's day. The United States youth international was set for his debut start at just 17. But the attacker picked up an injury when warming up and missed the match. 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.
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.
Gladbach 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. The victors' impressive form will cause some concern in Leipzig.
A quiet return for the U.S. stars
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. On Monday, Josh Sargent got 19 minutes as a sub for Werder Bremen.
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.
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.