Bayern have won seven straight Bundesliga titles and appear on course for No. 8 if they can keep their cool. Boris Streubel/Bongarts/Getty Images
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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 Monchengladbach 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.
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 Koln 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 Monchengladbach
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 Dusseldorf
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.