(Reuters) - Borussia Dortmund provided much-needed fireworks with a 4-0 demolition of bitter rivals Schalke 04 on Saturday after the German league restarted in front of empty stands after a suspension of over two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Bundesliga is the first major soccer league to return to action since the virus earlier this year shut down sports, and its return in a country that still has hundreds of positive virus cases a day is being closely watched by other leagues.
With a strict health protocol governing the fragile restart, which includes no fans, face masks for everyone but the players, no handshakes and no group celebrations, it was up to title hopefuls Dortmund, who host leaders Bayern Munich in 10 days’ time, to find a spark badly missing in the eerily empty ground.
The Ruhr valley club, in second place, scored the first goal of the matchday after nearly half an hour when teenager Erling Haaland connected with a Thorgan Hazard cutback.
The exciting 19-year-old Norway striker, who knocked in his 13th goal in 12 appearances for Dortmund in all competitions, picked up exactly where he left off in March.
He is already at the top of the transfer wish list of every major European club and, with an expected television audience of a billion for the Bundesliga this weekend, his immediate return to scoring will have enhanced his already stellar reputation.
Portuguese midfielder Raphael Guerreiro added two more goals and Belgium international Hazard also got on the scoresheet as Dortmund climbed to 54 points, one behind defending champions Bayern, who are in action at Union Berlin on Sunday.
“I’d have preferred if the conditions were normal,” Dortmund midfielder Julian Brandt said. “We all have to adapt and try to have fun under the circumstances. We did that pretty well today and what better way to restart the league than with a win.”
When Schalke brought on Timo Becker to replace Jonjoe Kenny in the 87th minute at the 80,000 plus-capacity Signal Iduna Park it was the first time in Bundesliga history a team had made five substitutions after FIFA announced the temporary rule change.
Goal celebrations around the Bundesliga on Saturday were limited to smiles, thumbs-up and the occasional fist or elbow bump as mask-wearing substitutes, dispersed in the stands to keep them apart, applauded from the sidelines.
Only Hertha Berlin’s players violated the rules when they celebrated their goals in the usual way as a group during a 3-0 win at Hoffenheim that earned coach Bruno Labbadia a winning debut on their bench.
While Dortmund’s comfortable victory cranked up the pressure on leaders Bayern, RB Leipzig suffered a major setback in their title challenge when they were held to a 1-1 draw at home to Freiburg as they slipped to fourth.
Leipzig, who used airplane stairs in the stadium to keep their substitutes in the stands at a safe distance from the bench, are now on 51 points, four behind Bayern who visit lowly Union Berlin on Sunday.
Borussia Moenchengladbach overran hosts Eintracht Frankfurt with early goals from Alassane Plea and Marcus Thuram and a late Ramy Bensebaini penalty to win 3-1 and take over third spot on 52 points to maintain their outside shot at winning the title.
VfL Wolfsburg reignited hopes of Europa League football next season with a 2-1 win at Augsburg courtesy of Daniel Ginczek’s stoppage-time winner that moved them up to sixth on 39.
Fans across the country followed police orders to stay away from the stadiums, including at the Ruhr derby, as the league tries to finish the season for contractual reasons by June 30.
Reporting by Karolos Grohmann, Additional reporting by Michael Nienaber in Berlin; Editing by Ken Ferris
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