By Andy Wales.
It’s been a few weeks since the last edition of this column. That has been down to me relocating to Germany and adjusting to big changes in my life. It’s all come during a time of turmoil, with the covid pandemic on the rise again.
Sadly, this also means Geisterspiele (ghost games – behind closed doors) are still a reality. The return of fans to stadiums in Germany has been restricted and conditional, based upon local infection rates.
Some games have seen a limited number of fans present, but many others have been in the absence of the heart and soul of German football.
The sad reality is that infection rates are rising throughout Europe. Despite the spread of coronavirus being tightly managed in Germany, infections are rising here too and it’s likely that Geisterspiele will continue to be a regular occurrence.
Financially, it has impacted the game at all levels, but it especially threatens those without the cushion of lucrative broadcasting deals. This is something I will explore in greater detail at a later date.
Much like the rest of the world, football is a long way away from normal.
In the Bundesliga, Robert Lewandowski scoring goals for a victorious Bayern Munich is very much the norm. As is Thomas Müller already leading the way in the assist charts. The treble-winning defending champions haven’t been at their sensational best yet this season, but they remain odds-on favourites for yet another title.
At the other end of the table, there’s also a sense of familiarity. The lack of fans in attendance appears to have had a negative impact upon FC Köln. Before lockdown, they clocked an impressive eight wins from 11 matches that stretched back to mid-December. However, their record since has been worrying, to say the least. They didn’t win a single one of their remaining nine Bundesliga fixtures and have started this campaign in a similar vein.
They remain winless, and a draw at home to Eintracht Frankfurt this past weekend was their first point of the season. There was no lack of effort or aggression on display. The same could not be said for quality and composure in possession, however. A fragile level of confidence is to be expected after such a terrible run of results, but things will need to change quickly if Markus Gisdol is not to become another managerial casualty.
The plight of Köln almost mirrors that of Schalke 04; except Köln’s form has not been as wretched as that of the Royal Blues. Schalke have already dispensed with the services of David Wagner and have worrying levels of debt to go with their form and evaporated confidence.
Schalke is a big club, a proud club, a traditional giant in German football. However, it is a club teetering on the edge, after years of poor decisions at all levels.
Often, as the cliche goes, a local derby will throw form out of the window. When two teams are on different trajectories, a derby game can be a leveller, a welcome opportunity for a suffering side to turn things around. It is very difficult to garner such optimism for Schalke in this case though.
This weekend sees the first Revierderby of the season, the intense showdown between two of the region’s footballing powerhouses. Borussia Dortmund are in decent form and have a plethora of exciting young talent at their disposal. Schalke are, quite frankly, in a desperate position.
The Schalke ultras fan group demanded talks with club officials after this past weekend’s unconvincing draw against Union Berlin. The rivalry between them and Dortmund means everything for both sets of fans and the Schalke fans are all too aware of where their club is currently heading.
Sadly, the massively reduced number of fans and lack of away supporters means the game will be missing its electric atmosphere. Perhaps the occasion can still inspire the Schalke players, but there’s been little evidence this calendar year that they can raise their game to the necessary levels.
Make no mistake, even bottom of the table Mainz are not in as much trouble as Schalke right now. Mainz were in chaos over the summer, but are beginning to settle. Köln showed signs of improvement and demonstrated that they are up for the fight. It’s tough to find crumbs of comfort for Schalke and Manuel Baum faces a herculean task to turn things around.
For Dortmund head coach Lucien Favre, only a win is good enough. The challenge of stopping the Bayern juggernaut is one that affords very few mistakes. Despite this being one of the fiercest derbies around, there should be only one winner on Saturday evening.
The pressure of expectation will be on Favre and his team, something they haven’t always handled well. So, a huge game for both teams, both managers and both sets of fans, with more than bragging rights at stake.