Ahead of Der Klassiker on Tuesday, matchday 27 of the Bundesliga season was about Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund maintaining momentum as Germany's top flight played a second weekend of games following a two-month shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Seven-time defending champions Bayern began the day four points ahead of their great rivals, and that is the way things stayed after both clubs won, although the leaders were forced to work harder than they might have expected, while Dortmund possibly lost a key defender in their victory.
After initial intrigue and adjustment to the new normal, close attention was again paid to celebrations and whether players could remember not to congratulate their teammates in the traditional "social distance-defying" manner. As with last week, most managed -- elbow-taps have become customary -- but some did get overexcited.
Meanwhile, the sight of empty grounds continues to be stark, and it will take time to get used to the sound of boot on ball, as well as the echoing of players' shouts. Borussia Monchengladbach offered their own take on how to fill seats with thousands of cardboard supporters.
Gladbach had little to cheer about as the prodigious Kai Havertz produced more game-changing moments for in-form Bayer Leverkusen. At the other end of the table, the battle to avoid relegation continued and Werder Bremen earned vital points.
Jump to: Werner, RB Leipzig rampant | Bayern stay four clear | Dortmund's efficient win | Schalke, McKennie slump again | Geisterspiele here to stay | Havertz superb again | USMNT focus | Social distancing watch | Hertha happier
Werner and RB Leipzig get back to winning ways
The full-time scoreboard read 5-0 in RB Leipzig's favour, but it should have been uglier for Mainz as the visitors could have scored another handful. Sunday afternoon was a wonderful one for RB Leipzig and hat-trick hero Timo Werner, yet dismal for Mainz. Having already lost 8-0 to Leipzig earlier in the season, the relegation-threatened hosts were left chasing shadows as Julian Nagelsmann served the rest of the Bundesliga a reminder that they may yet have a say in this season's title race.
Werner in particular was in devastating form. He was in the midst of a goal drought, by his sky-high standards, having scored just one in the last eight since his brace against Union Berlin on Jan. 18. But Sunday's hat-trick brought an abrupt end to that and he now sits on 23 goals in the Bundesliga, 30 overall for the season. No wonder Liverpool and just about every other team in Europe are chasing him.
The 24-year-old forward's movement is so deceptive, but he is just one moving part in the chameleon-like attack Nagelsmann has implemented at Leipzig. The front four move around with ease, dragging defenders out of position and creating space for each other. Yussuf Poulsen, who scored with his head in the first half, shifted a defender wide to make space for Werner to score Leipzig's opener; in the second half, it was Christopher Nkunku who came deep and deftly flicked the ball to tee up Kevin Kampl to offer Werner his second goal on a plate.
Add to that the unrelenting work rate of Marcel Sabitzer in midfield, which brought home a goal, and the pressing and prodding done by Kampl and Dani Olmo, who pop up in the box to offer additional threats. Once you think you've accounted for them, Konrad Laimer pops up down the right wing to offer something else. It was beautiful and brutal to watch.
All of this free-flowing attack came after Leipzig drew each of their last three games. With Bayern Munich and Dortmund threatening to pull away from the chasing pack, Leipzig and Leverkusen served reminders this weekend they are playing some delightful football and are keen to gate-crash the party at the top of the Bundesliga. On this evidence, underestimate Werner and Leipzig at your peril.
Bayern given a fright but stay four clear
In the end, it was a procession for Bayern Munich as they dispatched Eintracht Frankfurt 5-2, but a shaky five-minute spell early in the second half will serve as a valuable lesson against complacency for Hansi Flick's men, with Dortmund lying in wait.
When Robert Lewandowski's header made it 3-0 to the home side after 46 minutes, the points appeared to be safe and attention began turning to Tuesday's clash in Dortmund. But Frankfurt defender Martin Hinteregger grabbed a consolation, followed by another three minutes later and, for the briefest moment, the champions looked rattled.
Although Alphonso Davies would grab Bayern's fourth and an own goal added a fifth, that spell showed defensive lapses from set pieces that must be addressed. Having stunned them 5-1 back in November and with memories of their 2018 DFB-Pokal final win not too distant, Frankfurt against showed they can bloody Bayern noses.
Niko Kovac's time in charge ended after the November humbling, since when Flick has restored order at the Allianz Arena. Several key men have rediscovered top form, and Thomas Muller is a prime example of the difference between the two eras.
His stylish finish on Saturday was his seventh goal since Flick took charge, to go with 13 assists and the new contract he signed in April. Under Kovac this season, by contrast, Muller scored just twice, and there was speculation that he could leave the only club for which he has played.
Leon Goretzka netted an outstanding opener after 17 minutes and such was Bayern's dominance that by half-time, other than ex-Munich midfielder Sebastian Rode, the next-highest touches from a Frankfurt player was goalkeeper Kevin Trapp.
Hinteregger's double gave the away side some hope, but the outstanding Davies restored a two-goal lead and, after Manuel Neuer made an outstanding save and Filip Kostic rattled a post, Bayern made the points absolutely safe when Serge Gnabry forced a comedic own goal from Hinteregger.
This was a day that saw the two sides of Bayern, with hints of defensive fallibility suppressed by the ruthlessness of their attacking options. They cannot afford to switch off at the Westfalenstadion, against the likes of Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho, though.
Dortmund earn efficient win, but Hummels is a concern
"We are playing Wolfsburg today," Michael Zorc warned when asked about Tuesday's potential title decider between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich on Tuesday. Zorc has been at BVB forever, first as a player and later as a sporting director, so has seen it all and many times. He knew his club faced a real test on Saturday.
The hosts had taken just one point from the past 27 available against Dortmund, but went into the game unbeaten in seven and much improved under Austrian coach Oliver Glasner. However, they failed to show up at the Volkswagen Arena in the first half but might have forced their way back into the game after the break.
Dortmund needed the win and got it, with midfielder Julian Brandt providing more magic. The German international initiated the move that led to the opening goal just after the half hour; wing-back Raphael Guerreiro -- scorer of two goals against Schalke 04 last week -- on target again after the otherwise quiet Erling Haaland could not reach Thorgan Hazard's cross.
It was a game to watch Dortmund's bench. Emre Can came on at half-time for Mats Hummels, who was withdrawn with an achilles problem that could make him doubtful to face Bayern; England international Jadon Sancho, still working is way back to full fitness after a calf injury, came on to set up Achraf Hakimi for the second goal; American youngster Gio Reyna replaced Hazard soon after Dortmund doubled their lead.
With eight minutes left, Wolfsburg substitute Felix Klaus was harshly sent off by referee Daniel Siebert after a VAR check and Dortmund cruised home. Sure, their defense struggled more in the second half, but ahead of the Westfalenstadion showdown in three days, when Sancho and Can will be expected to start, Lucien Favre's side did what was needed to put the heat on Bayern.
Schalke, McKennie slump again
Weston McKennie's FC Schalke 04 continued their abysmal run with a 3-0 defeat at home to FC Augsburg on Sunday. The U.S. international midfielder gave away the ball too easy inside the first five minutes, eventually leading to Augsburg's opening goal through a set piece. He nearly made up for it in the first half when he found attacker Rabbi Matondo behind the lines, but the pacey Manchester United target was out of breath by the time he attempted to beat keeper Andreas Luthe.
The American worked hard, distributed balls and sometimes lost them in dangerous positions. He was substituted after 74 minutes when it was still only 1-0, and two late goals padded the visitors' margin of victory.
Responsibility rests heavily on McKennie's shoulders as the Royal Blues need someone to boss them out of the crisis. Since beating Borussia Monchengladbach 2-0 with an outstanding performance in mid-January, Schalke have failed to win a match, losing five and drawing four in their past nine outings. They've scored just twice and conceded 22. Having finished the first half of the season in fifth place and behind Dortmund only on goal difference, they've been the Bundesliga's second-worst team of 2020 and are a full 20 points back from their local rivals.
Former Huddersfield manager David Wagner could already be on his last legs as coach at the Veltins Arena.
Geisterspiele here to stay
Football cannot control a pandemic, and the Bundesliga -- wary of the ongoing coronavirus threat -- knows it can only provide a framework to restore parts of normality. Last weekend's first matchday came and went without any major fallout and viewing figures across the world showed that many people had been longing for live sport, but games lacked intensity.
But DFL CEO Christian Seifert admitted on Friday that "normal" football would only return once fans are back in stadiums and protesting against the authorities, telling the Suddeutsche Zeitung: "That's somehow also part of our football culture."
Before the sport shut down in March, the relationship between the league and clubs on one side and fan groups on the other hit a new low when protests against Hoffenheim's billionaire owner Dietmar Hopp turned into a general debate about club ownership.
The pandemic's impact has meant increases to the risk of financial trouble for clubs and the likelihood of limited spending, but despite their absence, supporters of several clubs have nonetheless made their presence felt and continued to attack the league, the system and its place in society.
At Monchengladbach on Sunday, where some 13,000 cardboard cutouts of fans were placed on the seats, a banner read: "Silent faces, cardboard reminders: Football without fans is nothing! For Borussia, against games behind closed doors!" Fans will not return before September at the earliest, though, which means the "ghost games' we see now will be around for some time.
Havertz steers Leverkusen into top four
With Kai Havertz's burgeoning reputation continuing to soar, Bayer Leverkusen's impressive run of form showed no sign of abating as they saw off Borussia Monchengladbach in front of 13,000 cardboard cutouts of fans at Borussia-Park.
Leverkusen were much the better team, with Havertz superb as he grabbed a brace to make it 11 goals in 15 games in 2020. Operating as a false nine, the 20-year-old neatly side-footed the opener after seven minutes and added a second-half penalty after a lengthy VAR check that included a pitchside monitor consultation from referee Soren Storks.
Sven Bender made the points safe with a header that ignited enough excitement to contravene social distancing guidelines for celebrations, as Leverkusen leapfrogged Monchengladbach into third. The hosts' goals came from Marcus Thuram, but that aside Gladbach were poor and their increasingly frustrated manager Marco Rose was warned by Storks.
USMNT stars in action
John Brooks (Wolfsburg) and Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen) got starts on Saturday, with Giovanni Reyna (Borussia Dortmund) getting 13 minutes off the bench and Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt) also coming on as a substitute.
Although Brooks was on the wrong end of a 2-0 defeat at home to Dortmund, he managed to keep the previously prolific Erling Haaland quiet; the Norwegian striker's most important contribution was an air shot that inadvertently teed up Raphael Guerreiro for the opening goals.
Brooks had a chance to equalise in the second half but hooked a shot wide and was booked for a foul on Jadon Sancho minutes before Reyna, who was a late withdrawal from Dortmund's derby against Schalke last weekend through injury, came on with the points safe to get valuable minutes ahead of Tuesday's vital match against Bayern Munich.
With Sargent starting up front, Bremen got a huge 1-0 win at Freiburg to boost their survival hopes. As well as offering an attacking threat, the 20-year-old was defensively diligent -- an area he had been told to work on by manager Florian Kohfeldt -- winning four aerial duals and making three clearances before he was replaced after 63 minutes.
In the day's late kickoff, Chandler was introduced at half-time as Eintracht chased a deficit. However, playing on the left side, he was powerless to stop Bayern's attack from adding three more goals and was frequently put under pressure by the raiding Kingsley Coman.
On Sunday, Tyler Adams got 31 minutes off the bench for RB Leipzig at FC Mainz 05, but by this time his side were already 4-0 to the good and turning attention to the next task. Leipzig added a fifth through prolific Werner but the game had fallen into a procession as Leipzig came away with a resounding 5-0 victory.
Alfredo Morales was arguably the top performer from the USMNT contingent over the weekend though Fortuna Dusseldorf conceded two goals after the 87th minute to settle for a 2-2 draw at rivals 1.FC Köln. Morales bears no blame for that: he played the full 90, anchored Dusseldorf's midfield and ran the most metres (11.3km) out of anyone on his side. It was an unfussy, but effective, performance.
Social distancing watch
After drawing criticism -- but escaping punishment -- last weekend for the way they celebrated goals against Hoffenheim, Hertha Berlin's players behaved themselves as they crushed city rivals Union 4-0 on Friday. The following day, though, Dortmund and Leverkusen contravened protocol.
A week after working out an iconic social distancing celebration against FC Schalke 044, BVB players hugged after their side's second goal, while Thorgan Hazard high-fived those on the bench when substituted. Leverkusen, meanwhile, had embraced when beating Werder Bremen on Monday and did so again at Monchengladbach.
In the remarkable 2-2 draw between 1. FC Koln and Fortuna Dusseldorf, where Koln scored twice in the last three minutes to grab a point, etiquette around their euphoric celebrations was momentarily an afterthought. Earlier in the match, Dusseldorf goalkeeper Florian Kastenmeier saved a penalty from Mark Uth and after receiving two chest bumps, waved his teammates away. But when Koln's Jhon Cordoba scored their 91st minute equaliser, social distancing was a long afterthought as the goal-scorer was hugged by his teammates.
Going into the weekend, the DFL urged clubs to observe the rules, pointing out that, in the event of any infections, doing so could be crucial to avoid local authorities putting entire squads into quarantine. However, while it remains to be seen if any action will be taken after the latest infringements, it seems unlikely.
Sources at Bundesliga clubs told ESPN this week that they believe the rule is just in place to ensure social distancing takes place off the pitch. Moreover, the advice to not hug after scoring is not part of the DFL's paper on how to bring back football.
Happier times for Hertha
In chaos before the enforced break, Hertha Berlin have picked up six points since games restarted, scoring seven and conceding none in the process. New coach Bruno Labbadia, the club's fourth boss this season following Ante Covic, Jurgen Klinsmann and Alexander Nouri, has steadied things and brought new ideas.
Friday's derby thrashing of Union Berlin was Hertha's revenge for an early November defeat to their cross-city rivals that came during a run of five straight defeats and saw fans riot while the manager's office appear to have a revolving door.
But under Labbadia, the club have an idea on the pitch for the first time this season; their latest outing saw young Brazilian forward Matheus Cunha, who arrived from RB Leipzig in the winter, score for the fourth time in only six matches.