Episode VI: Return of the Bundesliga
Ok, no. It's not a new Star Wars movie. But maybe it's almost as good.
The Bundesliga returns tomorrow after a hiatus that stretches back to March 11. Games begin at 9:30 a.m. EST and I haven’t been this excited in a while.
Live major sports: back.
Whether you’re a German football junkie or new to the game just so you can watch live sports again, here’s everything you need to know about the return of the Bundesliga.
Surprise, surprise, Bayern Munich is top of the table. Just like it has been for each of the last seven seasons. But unlike some other years, it’s not a runaway just yet.
The top of the league was clustered for much of the first half of the season, with no real frontrunner emerging even as of now.
Five teams still have a legitimate shot of winning the title. From Bayern in 1st to Bayer Leverkusen in 5th. With nine gameweeks remaining, the title race is hitting its hot point at the perfect time.
The top four teams qualify for the Champions League. Fifth place qualifies for the Europa League and sixth goes through Europa League qualifying in the summer.
At the other end of the table, the relegation battle is far from decided. Newly promoted Paderborn looks the most likely to go down, sitting 10 points from safety.
In the Bundesliga, the bottom two sides get relegated automatically. The 16th place finishers play a relegation playoff with the 3rd place team in Bundesliga 2.
All of the base rules for the game still apply. Fouls are still fouls, yellow and red cards will be given out, the field size remains the same.
The one big change is the switch from three allowed substitutions per team to five.
Every team will be allowed five substitutions per game, at three opportunities throughout the game in an effort to reduce any time-wasting.
In an effort to reduce the chance of spreading the virus, there will be a lot of things missing when play resumes Saturday.
No mascots (the children accompanying players during walkout), no contact between players in the tunnel, no pregame handshakes with the referees. Substitutes will have to wear masks and sit farther apart than normal, managers will also don masks, but may remove them to shout directions at their players. Even goal celebrations will look different than normal. Players have been warned to keep contact to a minimum during celebrations.
Of course, the biggest change will be playing in empty stadiums with no fans. Efforts are being made to simulate fan involvement. Sky TV will offer viewers a new audio option with prerecorded fan chants, singing and reactions based on the games. Borussia Mönchengladbach will have artificial cutouts of real supporters in the stands for its remaining home matches.
What to watch for
The Golden Boot race is heating up with the title and while it may not be as exciting and tight as its English counterpart, the players involved are the most enticing to watch.
Robert Lewandowski of Bayern Munich leads the way with 25 goals in as many games. Timo Werner of RB Leipzig follows with 21 goals. In a distant third is Borussia Dortmund wonderboy Jadon Sancho with 14 goals, but an impressive 15 assists to pair with it. Sancho’s direct involvement in 29 goals leads the Bundesliga.
The first match week back offers up some delightful fixtures. The one that takes the cake is Dortmund vs. Schalke in the Ruhr derby and a battle between 2nd and 6th places. The matchup also pits Americans Gio Reyna of Dortmund and Weston McKinnie of Schalke against one another.
Eintracht Frankfurt hosting Borussia Mönchengladbach promises to produce a classic as well.
To bet against Bayern winning the league would be inadvisable. But the title race this year is as close as it's been for a while. Even in years where it is this close this late in the season, Dortmund is typically the only side challenging the champions. But not this year.
Still, I’d bet on Bayern to lift the Bundesliga trophy once again.
As for the rest of the Champions League spots, I’d go with Dortmund, Leipzig, and Leverkusen.
In 5th and 6th, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Schalke respectively.
On the opposite end of the table, I don’t see Paderborn escaping relegation. Werder Bremen has been a mainstay in the league for a while, but it would be a tall task for them to stay up. I think they’ll skate by on the skin of their teeth into 16th and win their relegation play-off. That's bad news for Fortuna Düseeldorf, as they’ll go down in 17th.
The most monumental prediction may be deciding whether or not all the games will be completed without another suspension or even cancellation of the season. All we can do now is hope that doesn’t happen and be sure to enjoy what we’ve got while it’s here.