German Bundesliga returns: Bayern’s title fight, must-see matches and players to watch

    Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com.

After a two-month delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Bundesliga will become the first major European soccer league to return to action, resuming the 2019-20 season this Saturday. There’s still a lot of anxiety and uncertainty with the proceedings — not every player loves the idea, and second-division team Dynamo Dresden had to enter a two-week quarantine last weekend following a couple of positive tests — but thus far, the first division’s tentative schedule for completing its final nine matchdays remains a go for launch.

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While the eyes of the sports world will be monitoring whether the league’s safeguards and safety measures are effective, the most open and enjoyable big soccer league in Europe is now basically the only soccer show in town. Here’s everything you need to know about the league’s 2019-20 season, what’s at stake, and who you absolutely need to watch between now and the end of June.

Jump to: What makes Bundesliga fun | Breaking down title race | Teams ready to resume | Must-see matches | Americans in Bundesliga | Young stars you need to know

People always talk about how fun this league is. What do they mean? How is it different?

First thing’s first: If this is your first dip into the Bundesliga pool, you’re not going to get an entirely adequate impression. The league is generally considered one of the more fan-friendly in the world, eschewing at least a couple of layers of corporate influence, keeping ticket prices down as much as possible and crafting a reputation for great crowds. You aren’t going to get any sense of that because fans won’t be allowed to attend.

While it’s always a big match when Bayern Munich travels to Borussia Dortmund, it won’t be quite the same with an empty Yellow Wall. And while it will still be a big deal when Union Berlin, a first-division team for the first time, hosts Bayern this weekend, it is deeply unfortunate that Union fans won’t be there to see it. Still, the amount of television revenue on the line — and the potentially crippling financial impact cancellation of the season might create — ensured that games would be played one way or another if at all possible.

So far, it’s possible, and the unique conditions will at least create some enjoyably odd circumstances: Borussia Mönchengladbach is placing cardboard cutouts of fans in seats, for instance. And with high-fives and any excess contact between players banned, there’s a chance for some creative — and hopefully choreographed — goal celebrations. (If someone from Bayern scores a goal and somehow doesn’t attempt to dance like forward Robert Lewandowski in his TikTok videos, I will be extremely disappointed.)

It will be different, but it will also still be the Bundesliga, and as far as what makes this league’s play so enjoyable, allow me to refer you to a league styles piece I wrote in December.

What remains at stake in the title race?

The top four teams in the league qualify for the 2020-21 Champions League, while fifth and sixth head to the Europa League. And the top five teams are still close enough that a really good team is going to end up out of the Champions League running.

When the coronavirus stopped play in March, the Bundesliga table was a little bit more cluttered at the top than usual. Things had begun to sort themselves out: After falling behind early for the second straight year, 29-time champions (and winners of seven straight titles) Bayern Munich (55 points) had eased ahead of both Borussia Dortmund (51) and RB Leipzig (50) at the top. But Bayern still has to play not only Dortmund, but also fourth-place Borussia Mönchengladbach (49) and fifth-place Bayer Leverkusen (47). Put simply: We’re one upset result from a dogfight.

Gladbach led the league for much of the fall, but Leverkusen were hot on the trail before stoppage. The race to avoid fifth place should be heated: FiveThirtyEight’s club ratings trust the top three to secure bids and deem the fourth-place battle a toss-up between Gladbach and Leverkusen.

Which teams are ready to resume?

Bayern Munich: Finally they catch a break, right? Before the stoppage, it appeared as if forward and league-leading scorer Robert Lewandowski was going to miss an early-April trip to Dortmund, the match probably most vital to maintaining a true league title race, with a groin injury. But it appears he should be ready to roll when action resumes. (Dortmund’s Marco Reus could also have returned from injury by then.) The same goes for winger Ivan Perisic, who was playing brilliant ball before suffering an ankle injury in early February. Bayern continued to roll without them, of course, but manager Hansi Flick now has quite the choice of lineup options.

RB Leipzig: Julian Nagelsmann’s side were the story of the Hinrunde (the first half of the season), leading a crowded field into winter break and reaching the knockout rounds of the Champions League. (And yet, they’re arguably the least-liked team in Germany.) Their form didn’t hit a major wall or anything — they lost only once in eight league games after the break, allowed only six goals in the process and torched Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League round of 16 — but they were leaking points. They suffered four draws in those eight matches, and their offense had scored a pedestrian 14 goals (seventh in the league in that span). For a team that has never been in this kind of high-pressure situation before, the rest probably did them some good.

Schalke 04: Once near the top of the table, Schalke was heading quickly in the wrong direction in March. They had won just once in their past eight matches, scoring a league-low four goals. Forwards Michael Gregoritsch and Benito Raman had lost their finishing touch, combining for 6.3 Expected Goals (xG) but only two actual goals on 35 shots. Regression to the mean should lift them up a bit, though a little bit of extra rest would be ideal, especially if it means getting defenders Salif Sane and/or Benjamin Stambouli back. They both went down in November, and the defense was more scattershot as well.

FC Augsburg: Augsburg has been the league’s moodiest team this year. The Fuggerstädter began the season by losing to fourth-division SC Verl in the German Cup and pulling just seven points from their first 10 league matches. They allowed at least three goals in five of those 10. They suddenly outscored opponents 15-4 in a six-match unbeaten stretch … then won only once between Dec. 21 and the stoppage. From relegation-threatened to contender-for-Europe and back. They are in 14th place, five points out of the relegation playoff; we’ll see if the pause turned their mood back around.

What are the biggest remaining matches?

There are 34 matchdays in the Bundesliga schedule, and we’ve got nine remaining — the league is adamant on getting them all finished before June 30. With that in mind, here’s the biggest match from each round.

– Find all Bundesliga scores and fixtures here

Matchday 26 (May 16-18): Borussia Dortmund vs. Schalke 04
This is one of the biggest rivalries in Germany and the biggest this weekend by far. Borussia can’t afford to drop many, if any, more points in the title race, and with a loss, Schalke will likely drop out of sixth place, aka the final Europa slot.

Matchday 27: Borussia Mönchengladbach vs. Bayer Leverkusen
The race for the final Champions League position is nearly a dead heat between these two, and obviously the odds shift significantly if one of these teams secures three points against the other. The aesthetics of this match are pretty lovely, too: Gladbach might be the most creative passing team in the league, especially on the attacking end, while Leverkusen, led by 20-year-old future/present star Kai Havertz, have been a goal-scoring machine since winter break.

Schoenfeld: Havertz is destined for big things beyond Germany

Matchday 28: Borussia Dortmund vs. Bayern Munich
This has been the biggest battle in the Bundesliga for a while now: These clubs have taken 10 straight league titles and 22 of the past 26. And as mentioned above, both teams could be awfully close to full strength. If you watch only one league match the rest of the year, this is the one you need to catch. (But seriously, watch as many as possible. Satisfaction is guaranteed.)

Matchday 29: 1. FC Köln vs. RB Leipzig
With Bayern and BVB both playing relegation teams (Düsseldorf and Paderborn, respectively), the biggest matchup is either this or Freiburg vs. Leverkusen. I chose this one because it offers an opportunity to both catch a delightfully volatile Köln squad and take a sustained look at RBL. For each team’s remaining goals — Köln to Europa, RB Leipzig winning the title — taking three points here is a must.

Matchdays 30 and 31: Bayer Leverkusen vs. Bayern Munich; Bayern Munich vs. Borussia Mönchengladbach
On Nov. 30, two Leon Bailey goals gave Leverkusen an upset win over Bayern in Munich; a week later, Gladbach held onto first place with a stoppage-time goal from Ramy Bensebaini and a spirited 2-1 win over Bayern. Bayern hasn’t lost a single game in any competition since that day. If either team takes more points off of the league leader, that would provide a huge Champions League lifeline. But Bayern revenge attempts are often pretty cruel and relentless.

Matchday 32: RB Leipzig vs. Fortuna Düsseldorf
With all three primary title contenders playing relegation-threatened opponents, take this time to get to know RBL. Leipzig has a real “corporation bought its soul” issue, and German fans have rebelled against both the club and their success with relish. But Nagelsmann’s team is also intense and fun, loaded with players who could fetch a hefty sum on the transfer market in coming years: forward Timo Werner, attacking midfielders Christopher Nkunku and Marcel Sabitzer, defenders Dayot Upamecano and Lukas Klostermann, and so on.

Matchday 33: RB Leipzig vs. Borussia Dortmund
The stakes could have changed pretty drastically by this point, but the odds are decent that this is either a title-elimination match or a battle to secure second place in the league. Either way, the first battle between these two teams was a raucous 3-3 draw. This could be similarly fun whatever the stakes.

Matchday 34: Wolfsburg vs. Bayern Munich
The title will likely have been decided by now (with Bayern the likely champion, of course), but if it’s not, this is a “who blinks first” final set of matches. The three title favorites all face tricky opponents (Bayern vs. Wolfsburg, Dortmund vs. Hoffenheim, Leipzig vs. Augsburg), and the odds are decent that one of them will drop a couple of points.

Aren’t there a lot of Americans in this league?

Indeed! Some of the USMNT’s most exciting young players — and a few steely old veterans — are, when healthy, Bundesliga stalwarts.

Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig (21)
Adams has dealt with a series of groin/adductor issues over the past couple of years, but the former New York Red Bulls star was quickly slotted into RBL’s rotation once healthy. He’s versatile and perfect for Germany: a defensive midfielder capable of creating danger in attack.

Weston McKennie, Schalke 04 (21)
McKennie is an aggressive and integral part of the Schalke attack. He’s not the best finisher in the world (you could say that about a lot of Americans), but he pushes the ball up the pitch offensively and pressures well on defense.

Zack Steffen, Fortuna Düsseldorf (25)
The first-choice keeper for both the USMNT and Düsseldorf, Steffen’s 2019-20 campaign was wrecked by injury. He suffered a patella injury in mid-January, and while the stoppage could have helped him get back on the pitch, he instead strained his MCL in late April and could miss the rest of the season.

Giovanni Reyna, Borussia Dortmund (17)
The son of USMNT great Claudio, Reyna debuted for BVB early in 2020 and immediately fit in. Like Nkunku, he’s dangerous from both the wings and more central areas and scored a gorgeous goal against Werder Bremen in the DFB Pokal. The US boasts a lot of fun attacking midfielders, but Reyna could quickly move up the priority list.

Hamilton: Inside U.S. phenom Reyna’s life at Dortmund

John Brooks, Wolfsburg (27)
Another USMNT mainstay with a lengthy injury history, Brooks missed time in September but has still logged 16 starts for the team in bright green. And if you haven’t seen him play in a while, breaking news: He’s still tall. He still wins most aerials and plays standard, sturdy central D.

Alfredo Morales, Fortuna Düsseldorf (29)
A Bundesliga veteran who has also played for Hertha Berlin and Ingolstadt 04, Morales has put in over 1,400 minutes for Fortuna this season, scoring once and logging two assists. He remains one of the better ball-pressure guys in the USMNT player pool.

Timmy Chandler, Eintracht Frankfurt (30)
Chandler’s USMNT days are probably done, but he worked his way back into the Frankfurt rotation after missing all but 17 minutes of the 2018-19 campaign to a knee injury. And in 14 matches, he has scored four goals and logged one assist for the enigmatic Eagles.

Fabian Johnson, Borussia Mönchengladbach (32)
The longtime fullback was capped 57 times for the U.S. in the 2010s but dealt with roughly 57 back injuries as well. He played in 18 matches for Gladbach in 2018-19 but has seen action only six times this season.

Ulysses Llanez, Wolfsburg (19)
Llanez scored in his first USMNT appearance but hasn’t logged any minutes for the senior team — at least not yet. He put in 11 goals in 15 matches with the under-19 team, though. This is more of a “file away for next season” name.

Chris Richards, Bayern Munich (20)
Another name to file away for later. The 6-foot-2 center back moved up from Bayern’s U-19 team and put in nearly 2,000 minutes for Bayern II this season. He might need to get loaned out to see Bundesliga time soon, but it’s quite possible that’s exactly what happens.

Josh Sargent, Werder Bremen (20)
Already a feature player for the USMNT, Sargent has made 22 cup and league appearances for Bremen, scoring three times and dishing three assists. He had two goals in 10 appearances last season as well.

If this is a fun, young league, who are the fun, young players I should get to know?

Obviously the top teams feature some established names that you might recognize — Lewandowski, Reus, Bayern’s Thomas Müller, etc. — and if you followed the Champions League this year, then you likely became very familiar with 24-year-old stars like RBL’s Werner and Bayern’s Serge Gnabry. (Tottenham Hotspur definitely remembers Gnabry, anyway.)

This league gives young players more of a run than any major league.

Alphonso Davies, Bayern Munich
In barely three years, 19-year-old Davies went from Vancouver Whitecaps prospect to a starter for a Champions League favorite. He’s quite possibly the fastest player in Europe’s big five leagues, but even more impressively, he’s a sponge. His knowledge and his game have developed at a nuclear rate, and he could soon be one of the best left-backs or left wingers in the world … if he’s not already. Barring injury, he will almost certainly end up the best Canadian player of all time … if he’s not already.

Denis Zakaria, Borussia Mönchengladbach
Already a stalwart on the Swiss national team, Zakaria, 23, is one of the biggest pests in the league: He’s one of four players to have combined 170+ ball recoveries with a duel success rate of 57% or higher. (The other three: Upamecano and two established stars, Bayern’s Thiago and Dortmund’s Mats Hummels.) He challenges you constantly and usually wins.

Christopher Nkunku, RB Leipzig
Somehow acquired for just $14.3 million from PSG last summer, Nkunku is a standout creator — from the center or the wings — in a league full of them. His 65 chances created lead the Bundesliga, and his 4.03 chances per 90 minutes are second in all of the Big Five leagues, behind only Marseille’s Dimitri Payet (4.04). Kevin “damn” De Bruyne is only at 4.01. Nkunku, still only 22, is astounding.

Kai Havertz, Bayer Leverkusen
Havertz is a unicorn: He’s a great, agile attacking midfielder — only he and Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho have combined 20+ goals with 200+ ball recoveries over the past two seasons — but at 6-foot-2 and 183 pounds, the 20-year-old playmaker is also bigger than a lot of defenders. He’s a matchup nightmare, and it’s probably no surprise that transfer rumors have linked him to Bayern and basically every big Premier League club over the past 12 months.

Jadon Sancho, Borussia Dortmund, and Erling Haaland, Borussia Dortmund

From Lewandowski (Bayern) to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) to Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona) and many others, BVB has earned a reputation as basically the finishing school for future stars. Lewandowski led them to a Champions League final before departing for Bayern. They deploy a young roster, flash significant upside, finish second or third in the league, sell players for a hefty profit, bring in some new youngsters and do it all over again, year after year. This guarantees financial health, but it also creates a nonstop set of what-ifs. They haven’t advanced past the Champions League quarterfinals since 2013, and there’s always a feeling of “if they could have just kept [insert young star(s) here] for one more year …”

We’re about to enter one of the stranger transfer windows in recent memory. Because of the money lost during the coronavirus stoppage, no one can tell how many clubs will be in position to buy megastar talent this offseason (whenever the season is officially “off”). And it’s easy to secretly hope that, despite nonstop transfer rumors regarding both January acquisition Haaland and, especially, Sancho, BVB keeps the band together for one full season, just to see what this group can do.

Sancho, 20, has already succeeded at an unfathomable level. I mentioned that he and Havertz are the only league players with 20+ goals and 200+ ball recoveries in two years; Well, Sancho also has 20+ assists. He, Leo Messi and PSG’s Angel Di Maria are the only to hit 20 and 20 in that span. This year alone, Sancho is leading the league with 29 combined assists and goals (Lewandowski and Werner both have 28). He is a good defender, a great scorer and an elite passer. And he’s 20. Whenever he does leave, be it this summer or next, he will likely command an incomprehensible transfer fee.

The 6-foot-4, Thor-esque (sans the beard) Haaland, meanwhile, went from hipster favorite to world-renowned in a heartbeat. That’s what happens when you not only score a first-half hat trick in your first Champions League appearance and become the first teenager to score in your first five Champions League matches — he had eight goals in total for Red Bull Salzburg during the UCL group stage — but also then join BVB and score 12 goals in your first 11 appearances in black and yellow. In just two years, the 19-year-old has gone from playing in the Norwegian Eliteserien to becoming the Next Karim Benzema at worst. He’s a world-class poacher and finisher, and he’s got one of the best passing teams in the world feeding him the ball.

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