(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 face 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 has already gone to the top of the transfer wish list of every major European club and, with an expected audience of a billion for the Bundesliga this weekend, his immediate return to scoring will have only 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.
When Schalke brought on Timo Becker to replace Jonjoe Kenny in the 87th minute at the 80,000-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.
The league’s strict health and safety rules had already claimed their first victims, with Augsburg coach Heiko Herrlich and Union’s Urs Fischer having been banned from the bench after they left the seven-day pre-match mandatory squad isolation.
While Dortmund’s comfortable victory cranked up the pressure on leaders Bayern, third-placed RB Leipzig suffered a major setback in their title challenge when they were held to a 1-1 draw at home to Freiburg.
Leipzig, who used airplane stairs in the stadium to keep their substitutes in the stands and at a safe distance from the bench, are now on 51 points, four behind Bayern who visit lowly Union Berlin on Sunday.
Hertha Berlin coach Bruno Labbadia enjoyed a winning debut as his side enjoyed a 3-0 victory at Hoffenheim that moved them further away from the relegation zone and into 11th place.
VfL Wolfsburg reignited their 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.
With a poll for German state broadcaster ARD showing 56% of Germans consider the restart at this stage to be wrong, the league will aim to complete the last eight Bundesliga matchdays with as few problems and controversies as possible.