DÜSSELDORF – The coronavirus pandemic has changed almost everything about soccer in Germany, except Bayern Munich's chances of winning.
The seven-time defending champions are still the team to beat.
When the Bundesliga resumes on Saturday after a two-month suspension caused by the pandemic, Borussia Dortmund and Leipzig will be Bayern's main challengers.
The match between local rivals Dortmund and Schalke — the highest-profile of the first day's games — would normally be a sea of yellow and blue, with ear-splitting chants and elaborate pre-game displays in the stands.
But on Saturday the stands will be empty and the coaches on the sidelines will be wearing masks.
The unprecedented suspension has put every team in uncharted territory. There's no recent form or friendly games to go on, and players will have to shake off weeks of rust.
Some teams — notably Bayern — have brought injured players back to health, while Dortmund is without several key starters because of injuries.
Bayern is the German league's biggest and richest team. Failing to win the league would be a disaster for a club which prides itself on success to a degree that rivals often consider arrogant.
Midfielder Thomas Mueller is talking up the team's desire.
“When I see the feelings and emotions that have developed even in a training game in the last few days, that shows our hunger for regular competition,” Mueller wrote Wednesday on LinkedIn.
“We as pro soccer players are fired up to get back onto the green field. Games without spectators are obviously a compromise which hits us all in the heart and a fact that you don't want to get used to in the long term.”
As long as the coronavirus pandemic doesn't suspend the season again, the title race could come down to three forwards. Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski, Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland and Leipzig’s Timo Werner have all been crucial to their team's challenges with explosive scoring form.
The Bundesliga’s two-month break came just as Lewandowski, who leads the league with has 25 goals in as many games, was out with a shin injury. Now he is back at “top fitness” and ready to take on Union Berlin on Sunday, Bayern coach Hansi Flick said last week.
Borussia Dortmund is four points behind in second place with nine games to go. Dortmund was playing well when the league was suspended but has players injured. Emre Can and Axel Witsel will both miss the Schalke game, leaving a hole in central midfield and questions about how to get the ball to Haaland and Jadon Sancho up front.
Leipzig is one point behind Dortmund in third place. Cash from energy drink company Red Bull has built the team — which didn't exist until 2009 — into a title contender and earned the scorn of many German fans who reject the “new money” squad from the eastern part of the country.
Werner has 21 goals in 25 league games but was off-form in February and March. Leipzig takes on Freiburg on Saturday.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic made this season unlike any other, Borussia Mönchengladbach was having a year to remember.
Gladbach lead the league for much of the fall and is still only six points behind Bayern in fourth place. Hopes have faded of a first Bundesliga title since 1977, but qualifying for next season's Champions League would be a coup for a team operating on a smaller budget than those around it.
Gladbach and coach Marco Rose return to action against Eintracht Frankfurt on Saturday.
Bayer Leverkusen is aiming to spoil Gladbach's party and snatch the fourth and last Champions League spot. Beating Werder Bremen on Monday is crucial for Leverkusen to build some momentum.
BIG TEAMS IN TROUBLE
Some of Germany's traditional powerhouses are struggling.
Werder is fighting relegation in 17th place, while Hertha Berlin is in 13th after an erratic season that includes a 10-game spell under former U.S. national team coach Jürgen Klinsmann, who left abruptly in February. Hertha has suspended forward Salomon Kalou after he posted a video showing social-distancing measures being flouted at the club.
The second division is also resuming this weekend, with former European champion Hamburg and Stuttgart both battling to get back to the Bundesliga. Last-place Dynamo Dresden's return to action has been delayed because two players tested positive for the coronavirus.
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