The Bundesliga is back, so can Dortmund catch Bayern?
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Bayern Munich are in pole position to win an eighth straight title, but Borussia Dortmund lead the chasing pack and are spearheaded by Erling Braut Haaland as the Bundesliga comes out of its coronavirus-enforced hibernation this weekend.
AFP Sport takes a look at what is at stake on the field when the German top flight ends a two-month shutdown to play out its final nine matchdays.
- Some things stay the same... -
Teams have undergone testing and been forced into quarantine training camps because of the virus, and all matches will be played behind closed doors in the league with the highest attendances in world football.
So this will not be the Bundesliga as we know it, but something else may be just as before -- Bayern, the country's most successful club, are on track to win another title, which would be their eighth in a row.
They had put a patchy start to the season under Niko Kovac behind them before the shutdown, with Hansi Flick coming in as coach and Bayern winning 10 and drawing one of their last 11 league games.
The Bavarians are four points clear of Dortmund at the top and have been busy since their last game, with Flick signing a new contract until 2023.
Key players Thomas Mueller and Alphonso Davies followed suit by penning extensions of their own, while former striker Miroslav Klose has joined as assistant coach.
With Robert Lewandowski scoring 25 goals in 23 games, Bayern are formidable. They still have to visit Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen, although it remains to be seen how much home advantage will matter without fans.
- Watch out for Haaland -
It could still just about be a four-horse title race, with Borussia Moenchengladbach six points off the pace in fourth, but Dortmund are best-placed to stop Bayern.
Lucien Favre's side were last seen going out of the Champions League to Paris Saint-Germain, but before that were in thrilling form led by young stars Haaland and Jadon Sancho.
They won seven out of eight league games after 19-year-old Norwegian powerhouse Haaland arrived from Red Bull Salzburg. He scored nine goals in that run.
Dortmund, though, will not be able to rely on their fans who usually pack the 81,000-capacity Signal Iduna Park and their next two home games -- against Ruhr rivals Schalke on Saturday and then Bayern -- will lose much of their edge as a result.
"Having to play behind closed doors is an enormous challenge, especially for a club like BVB, which draws a lot of strength from the passion of its supporters," admitted Dortmund chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke.
Dortmund also must still visit Leipzig, who reached the Champions League quarter-finals before the suspension but whose patchy league form after the winter break saw them fall off the pace.
In Timo Werner, they have their own fearsome striker. And in Julian Nagelsmann, 32, they have one of Europe's most exciting young coaches, so anything is possible.
Gladbach were the last team to beat Bayern in the league but would now settle for holding off fifth-placed Leverkusen to secure Champions League qualification.
There are two points between those sides, who are due to meet next weekend.
Beneath them, in the fight for one Europa League spot, Schalke, Wolfsburg, Freiburg and Hoffenheim are all within two points.
- Bremen in danger -
At the bottom Paderborn prop up the division but the plight of Werder Bremen is more striking.
The four-time champions are four points adrift of Fortuna Dusseldorf in the relegation play-off place and eight points from outright safety.
They have a game in hand, but are in danger of following the path of Hamburg and Stuttgart, two giants to have been relegated in recent seasons.
"We all know how precarious our league position is. That's motivation enough," said sporting director Frank Baumann when asked about playing home games without fans.
Elsewhere, Hertha Berlin seem far enough clear of relegation trouble but it has been a chaotic campaign in the capital.
Bruno Labbadia has become the club's fourth coach this season since the shutdown began, with Jurgen Klinsmann's short-lived time in charge ending.
© 2020 AFP