The Bundesliga is really returning this weekend, with matches behind closed doors taking place from Saturday to Monday. All 18 clubs in the German top flight are slated to be in action–pending the outcome of coronavirus tests, naturally–kick-starting a long-anticipated resumption of one of the world's truly elite leagues.
With nine matches spanning three days, there will be plenty to digest. Here's a closer look at all of the games, in reverse order of their level of intrigue–but let's be honest, it'll just be nice to have any matches in a top-tier league back to watch (all times Eastern):
9. Augsburg vs. Wolfsburg (Saturday, 9:30 a.m., Fox Soccer Plus)
This pits two average sides against each other. Augsburg dropped three straight matches before the shutdown and finds itself just five points clear of relegation trouble, while Wolfsburg's best-case scenario appears to be a Europa League qualifying berth. Wolfsburg is the home of U.S. international defender John Brooks and rising U.S. international forward Ulysses Llanez, with the latter just getting the call to the first team before things went dark. A Llanez first-team debut would add a lot more intrigue from an American angle, should it occur, but it seems highly unlikely after the club warned against rushing his path to playing time.
One fun wrinkle: Augsburg will be shorthanded on the bench after its manager broke quarantine by leaving the team hotel to buy toiletries, which forces him to miss the match. Welcome to the new normal.
8. Hoffenheim vs. Hertha Berlin (Saturday, 9:30 a.m.)
Hertha Berlin has endured a wild ride this season, with Bruno Labbadia hired as the club's fourth manager in 2019-2020 back in April. Ante Covic, Jurgen Klinsmann and Alexander Nouri all tried and failed, with Klinsmann's exit the most notable and widely publicized of the bunch. All along, the quest has been to avoid relegation, and the club is six points clear of the relegation playoff place and 10 points away from the automatic drop.
Hoffenheim, meanwhile, is situated more comfortably mid-table and is part of four teams who are within two points of one another for a place in the Europa League qualifying rounds.
7. Koln vs. Mainz (Sunday, 9:30 a.m., FS1)
Koln has been one of the clubs most impacted by the coronavirus, announcing as recently as May 1 three positive cases within its personnel. It wasn't specified if any players were among the ones infected, but this pandemic has clearly hit closely to home for the club. How will it react?
In Mainz, it will face a team desperately looking to create more separation from the drop zone, with it situated just four points clear of the relegation playoff spot.
6. Werder Bremen vs. Bayer Leverkusen (Monday, 2:30 p.m., FS2)
These are two teams on opposite ends of the spectrum. Werder Bremen is fighting for survival, entrenched in an automatic relegation place by four points and in need of a late surge. Bayer Leverkusen is fighting for its Champions League life, two points out of fourth, and remains alive in the semifinals of the DFB Pokal, Germany's domestic cup competition.
Leverkusen, as per usual, boasts a slew of young talents, perhaps none brighter than Kai Havertz, the 20-year-old German midfielder who is always close to the top of the transfer rumor mill (no matter how fruitless that endeavor is this summer).
On the other side, there's Josh Sargent, the 20-year-old American forward who had ended his lengthy club scoring drought in the last match before the shutdown and is eyeing a strong conclusion to the season.
5. Eintracht Frankfurt vs. Borussia Monchengladbach (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., FS1)
Unfortunately we'll have to wait a week before we see the optics of Monchengladbach playing in a home stadium with thousands of plastic cutouts of fans in the stands, but this matchup still pits two of the league's more intriguing sides against one another.
Monchengladbach sits in fourth, clinging to a Champions League spot, while Frankfurt has its eyes on a date vs. Bayern in the semifinals of the DFB Pokal, all while lingering six points clear of the relegation playoff spot.
There's a veteran German-American element to this matchup too, with Frankfurt's Timmy Chandler potentially sharing the field with Monchengladbach's Fabian Johnson–though playing time has been especially difficult for the latter to come by this season.
4. RB Leipzig vs. Freiburg (Saturday, 9:30 a.m., FS2, TUDN USA)
There were times this season when Leipzig looked to be the best-suited challenger for Bayern Munich's throne, but a seven-game stretch in which the club went 2-1-4 before the league was suspended resulted in Julian Nagelsmann's side slipping from the perch. Draws, generally speaking, aren't the way to outlast Bayern in a season-long race.
Speculation regarding the futures of center back rock Dayot Upamecano and forward star Timo Werner may be swirling, but the focus has to be on not just catching Bayern (which it trails by five points) but maintaining its top-four standing. As good as it's been this season, RBL is just three points clear of fifth place, and it'd be a shame if all the work put into this season did not result in a Champions League berth (that work, by the way, includes the club's first berth in the 2019-20 Champions League quarterfinals, should that competition find a way to continue).
Freiburg won the reverse fixture in October, a wild match that featured goals from the hosts right before halftime and right before full time, with Leipzig nicking a consolation strike in stoppage time.
3. Union Berlin vs. Bayern Munich (Sunday, 12 p.m., FS1)
Bayern is a different team entering the restart (Niko Kovac was still managing in the fall; it's Hansi Flick's show now), and it can ill afford to slip up with three clubs within six points. Bayern took care of plenty of business during the shutdown. It stripped the interim tag from Flick and signed him through 2023; extended Thomas Muller's deal through 2023; extended Canadian teen sensation Alphonso Davies's deal through 2025; and signed German legend Miroslav Klose as an assistant coach, effective July 1. If it can handle its business on the field for the next nine games, then it'll have an eighth straight domestic title, too.
The reverse fixture at Allianz Arena back in late October was closer than expected, with Bayern going ahead 2-0 then watching as Union Berlin missed one penalty kick and made another in a 2-1 result.
2. Fortuna Dusseldorf vs. Paderborn (Saturday, 9:30 a.m.)
Yeah, it's 16th vs. 18th. But hear me out.
Nobody knows how long this reprieve from shutdown will last. Maybe Germany's protocols are strong enough to see out the rest of the season. That's the hope, of course. But in the event they're not, then this may be the one of the last chances for these clubs to escape relegation danger. Dusseldorf sits in the relegation playoff place, four points away from safety, while Paderborn is six points behind, mired in last. Nothing sparks entertainment quite like desperation, and both of these clubs have been swimming in it.
Unfortunately for U.S. and Dusseldorf goalkeeper Zack Steffen, he won't be playing a part, as he recovers from a knee injury suffered in limited training sessions leading up to the full return.
1. Borussia Dortmund vs. Schalke (Saturday, 9:30 a.m., FS1, Fox Deportes)
This one is a no-brainer.
The Revierderby is one of Europe's most fierce rivalry matches, and it's going to be awfully weird for it to be staged in an empty stadium as opposed to a boisterous, yellow-and-black-clad atmosphere that is typical at Signal Iduna Park. (For insight into what a heated rivalry bout without fans looks like, read the piece from Sports Illustrated's Brian Straus on U.S. international Tyler Boyd and his experience playing for Besiktas vs. Galatasaray behind closed doors.)
There are table stakes for both, with Dortmund four points behind Bayern Munich and Schalke hanging onto the league's last place in Europe (a Europa League qualifying round berth, but it's better than nothing) by a point over Wolfsburg and Freiburg and two points over Hoffenheim.
The match also figures to feature young Dortmund sensations Erling Haaland (12 goals in 11 matches in all competitions since joining in January) and Jadon Sancho (14 goals, third-most in the Bundesliga), while Dortmund's Gio Reyna could match up against Schalke's Weston McKennie in an all-American battle.