Bundesliga is back: Brilliant Brandt and labouring Leipzig a welcome addition to the new normal

By Sports Desk May 16, 2020

The same, but different. It seems the best we can hope for in this new normal that nobody wanted.

For the first time since the 2013 Champions League final between Bayern Munch and Borussia Dortmund, the Bundesliga was at the centre of the football world on Saturday.

Tentative steps taken elsewhere, most notably in Korea, meant the global audience tuning in knew much of what to expect in terms of oddities - from players and staff arriving in masks, to their voices echoing around cavernous stadia.

But how would the football look in this setting? Would there be a pre-season feel as one of Europe's elite leagues punched below its weight?

In each of the five Saturday afternoon kick-offs, there was evidence of players feeling their way in amid peculiar circumstances.

In the Revierderby, Schalke enjoyed more territory than Dortmund during the opening minutes, attacking a Yellow Wall without a single one of its howling bricks at Signal Iduna Park.

At the Red Bull Arena, the other side rivalling Bayern for the title, RB Leipzig looked not to have missed a beat as the slickly set about Freiburg.

Those early suggestions were entirely deceptive. Never mind your latest Netflix series, the Bundesliga has you covered for sneaking, snaking plot twists.

This was a slow burning drama, with almost half an hour passing before a goal was scored. When it arrived, it came from a superstar member of the cast.

Erling Haaland's 29th-minute opener was a beautiful goal, immaculately constructed. Julian Brandt, who schemed wonderfully to befuddle the Schalke defence for much of the match, sent a cute flick into Thorgan Hazard's path.

The Belgium international's clipped cross allowed Haaland to open his body and coolly finish left footed for a 10th goal in nine Bundesliga outings. Much as crowd noise was wanting, the crunch of the ball hitting the netting was a sound to enjoy everywhere apart from Gelsenkirchen. It's still nice to see, hear and feel nice things.

Haaland's choice of celebration was a swaggering dance at an acceptable distance from his team-mates. This jarred a little, only because the teenager had just got involved in penalty area confrontation with Jean-Clair Todibo at close quarters.

Incidentally, the lack of fans meant Todibo could be heard suggesting Haaland do something unmentionable to this grandmother that would certainly be at odds with social distancing.

Pandemic-aware celebrations elsewhere saw Renato Steffen punch fists with Wolfsburg team-mates after an emphatically thumping header set their 2-1 win at Augsburg in motion, while Freiburg bumped elbows with one another when Manuel Gulde's fortuitous flick stunned Leipzig.

Captain Yussuf Poulsen equalised before Freiburg thought they had a winner, although through Robin Koch's humerus hitting happiness was short-lived due to the looming, all-knowing baddie most people can't abide – VAR, the Carole Baskin of the piece.

The more the action wore on, the easier it felt to immerse yourself in familiar story lines.

Three consecutive draws mean Leipzig's title push is spluttering, while Dortmund's is powering through the gears. Their other goals in the 4-0 shellacking of Schalke were just as easy on the eye as Haaland's.

Raphael Guerreiro was on target twice, either side of Hazard as Brandt continued to slice the visitors apart on a day when their goalkeeper Markus Schubert could scarcely have looked less composed.

At the other end of the table, Fortuna Dusseldorf hit post and bar on three occasions as they drew 0-0 with bottom club Paderborn – profligacy they will hope does not haunt them in the final analysis.

After half-time, the goals piled up alongside some clanging errors. Perhaps a by-product of fitness levels still needing to be sharpened, but maybe just football being football.

No element of the Leipzig lockdown could be blamed for Ademola Lookman's howling close-range miss, a moment when the English youngster was probably thankful no fans could offer helpful pointers.

Ihlas Bebou erred with the goal similarly at his mercy for Hoffenheim and the Dietmar Hopp financed outfit crashed further, unable to reboot from Kevin Akpoguma's own goal as Hertha Berlin stormed to a 3-0 away victory.

By contrast, Wolfsburg left it late and Daniel Ginczek gave the Bundesliga's return a stoppage-time winner.

Overall, the distraction of the strange settings did not stop this being a nice distraction. So long as risks to the health and welfare of those involved are at a minimum – and the Bundesliga has been rigorous – that feels okay.

Wonderful goals and dreadful errors, beauty and comedy, a Bundesliga title race and a relegation scrap. The same, but different and a welcome addition to the new normal.

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    Four rounds remaining, four teams involved, and just six points to separate them.

    The end of the LaLiga title race looks to be the most gripping to any of the top five European leagues this term, and almost certainly the least predictable finish in Spain since 2006-07.

    Back then, there were three teams in with a chance of taking home the title on the final day of the season: Real Madrid and Barcelona, of course, plus Juande Ramos' Sevilla.

    As it was, Madrid and Barca won on the last day whereas Sevilla – who needed a win and for the other two to lose – lost at home to Villarreal.

    Madrid finished top by virtue of a better head-to-head record over Barca, who were essentially denied the title by their local rivals Espanyol, slumping to a 2-2 draw with them on the penultimate day to hand Los Blancos the initiative.

    For the first time since then, Sevilla are again in with a shout of upsetting established order – albeit they trail the leaders by six points – though on this occasion Atletico Madrid are most prominently in the mix.

    Diego Simeone's side looked certainties for the title not too long ago: at the start of February, they were 11 points clear, but they've won only seven of their 15 league games since, including a defeat to Sevilla in early April.

    Yet, remarkably, it's still in Atletico's hands thanks to Barca's surprise loss at home to Granada last week.

     

    What made that defeat even more incredible was the fact Granada had just 18 per cent of the ball and scored twice from an xG (expected goals) value of just 0.69. This means they netted more than two times as many as they should have, which speaks to how stunningly clinical they were.

    Interestingly – or, infuriatingly, if you're a fan – it was Barcelona's second-highest share of the ball in a league game this season, behind only 82.1 per cent against Cadiz. They lost both games.

    It's all shaping up for potentially decisive blows to be struck across May 8 and 9, when the top four all play each other – Barca host Atletico on Saturday, with Sevilla going to Madrid the next day.

    But what does our prediction model say about the most likely outcome in the title race?

    How does the predictor work?

    The data model estimates the probability of each match outcome – either a win, draw or loss – based on each team's attacking and defensive quality. Those ratings are allocated based on four years' worth of comprehensive historic data points and results, with more weighting given to recent matches to account for improvements or declines in form and performance trends.

    The AI simulation takes into account the quality of the opposition that a team scores or concedes goals against and rewards them accordingly. All that data is used to simulate upcoming matches using goal predictions from the Poisson distribution – a detailed mathematical model – with the two teams' attacking and defending ratings used as inputs.

    The outcome of the season is then simulated on 10,000 different occasions in order to generate the most accurate possible percentage chance of each team finishing in their ultimate league position.

    Let's say how the model now predicts the final league table will look...

     

    Atletico take the crown

    Atletico Madrid are now given a 40.6 per cent probability of winning the title, up from 38 per cent a week ago.

    It essentially looks like it will come down to their showdown with Barca. Atletico hold a slight advantage, having beaten the Catalans 1-0 in Madrid in the reverse fixture, and our predictor seemingly doesn't expect Ronald Koeman's men to overturn that at Camp Nou, as the model sees Atletico winning the title by virtue of their head-to-head record.

    Barcelona's chances have increased from 32.6 per cent to 35.1, with that surprise defeat to Granada preventing any bigger jump despite their 3-2 win at Valencia.

    After drawing 0-0 twice in three games, Madrid's chances dropped from 34.4 per cent to 26.6 per cent last week, and they now sit at 24.3 per cent despite their most recent 2-0 win over Osasuna.

    Sevilla, who conceded an injury-time winner to Athletic Bilbao last time out, remain distant outsiders. Our prediction model only gives them a 0.1 per cent probability of winning their first league title since 1946.

  • Messi will see out career at Barca thanks to Laporta, says Zambrotta Messi will see out career at Barca thanks to Laporta, says Zambrotta

    Lionel Messi will remain at Barcelona until the end of his career after president Joan Laporta's efforts in revitalising the club.

    That is the view of former Barca full-back Gianluca Zambrotta, who believes the Messi transfer saga will be laid to rest once and for all.

    It had looked likely Messi would leave, probably for Manchester City, at the start of this campaign but a dispute over the terms of his contract at Camp Nou proved a stumbling block too far.

    The Argentina star has since helped Ronald Koeman's side win the Copa del Rey and they remain in the battle for LaLiga, sitting two points behind leaders Atletico Madrid, who they face on Saturday. 

    And Zambrotta, who played for the club between 2006 and 2008, feels Barca now represent a more attractive proposition for Messi since Laporta's election as president for a second time in March.

    "They won already an important title in Spain and this is already something," the former Italy international told Stats Perform.

    "They are in contention for La Liga title. On Saturday there will be the game versus Atletico Madrid, they are just two points down with Real Madrid, so Barcelona are a team that's still up there regardless of any problem.

    "They have the chance to win La Liga too, although it will be a fight until the end.

    "I see Barcelona as an improved team in recent months. Laporta has brought enthusiasm and made the place a bit more serene with the aim of keeping their most important player, Messi."

    Asked if Barca will achieve that aim, he replied: "I guess so, Messi will never leave Barcelona unless in a distant future he will like to go back to Argentina, but I doubt it.

    "I think he will stay at Barcelona until the end of his career."

  • Koeman: Touchline ban is about something personal Koeman: Touchline ban is about something personal

    Ronald Koeman believes there is something personal behind the decision to hand him a touchline ban.

    Barcelona confirmed this week they are to appeal to Spain's Administrative Court of Sport (TAD) after head coach Koeman's ban for Saturday's potential LaLiga title decider with Atletico Madrid was upheld by the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF).

    Koeman was hit with a two-match suspension after being shown a red card for comments made to the fourth official during his side's shock 2-1 home loss to Granada last Thursday.

    Barcelona had hoped to have Koeman back for the massive game at Camp Nou, but it was announced on Wednesday that their appeal was not successful, prompting the club to try again with TAD.

    "Yes, I think it was personal," said Koeman.

    "Because saying 'what a character' in Spanish or 'what a person' in English is not insulting. 

    "It is not a reason to sanction. So yes, there is something else behind it.

    "Better not talk about the referees because, in general, the RFEF puts one of the best referees in for these games. 

    "It is hoped that he [Mateu Lahoz] gets his decisions right, but you don't have to think about the referees. You have to think about yourself and plan.

    "Hopefully the decisions of the VAR are fair for us and for Atletico."

    Barca go into the match at Camp Nou two points behind leaders Atletico, with Real Madrid also trailing Diego Simeone's men by that margin in a thrilling title race.

    Ahead of the crunch clash, Barca confirmed Ansu Fati's injury comeback has hit another setback, as the Spain forward had to undergo another knee operation, his fourth procedure.

    Fati suffered a serious meniscus injury in November, having scored five goals across 10 appearances for Barca across all competitions.

    The 18-year-old was initially forecast to return in March, but his long spell on the sidelines and problems with his injury had even led some to question whether Fati would be able to have a long career in the game.

    "Poor kid," said Koeman. "I have not yet spoken with Ansu. I did speak with him before his trip to Porto [for the operation].

    "It takes a long time and there are things that have not gone well with his recovery - I don't want to go into that anymore, but five or six months is a long time.

    "Now the most important thing is that he is going to recover, he is going to get well and that he will be with us. Too bad it is for next season.

    "It has been important that we missed a player like him, but the most important thing is that he recovers well to continue playing."

     

    Koeman knows the stakes are high in the title race and Barcelona have a good record against their opponents, losing just one of their 21 previous LaLiga games against Atletico, winning 14.

    "I have not changed my mind; if we win every game we will be champions," he said of the four remaining league fixtures.

    "I don't think it [this result] is decisive because there will be three games left, but of course it is important. It is not decisive.

    "They are both very good teams and we are fighting with two more teams as well [Real Madrid and Sevilla]. 

    "We have to be good with the ball because Atletico closes well and defends well. We have to be good with the ball to create opportunities and be effective."

    Barca are looking to avoid losing home and away in the league against Atleti for the first time since 2005-06, Simeone's men having won 1-0 in the last meeting in November.

    But aside from that rare blip against Granada, Koeman's side have the momentum. They have collected a league-high 49 points in 2021 (W16 D1 L2), eight more than Atletico in this period.

    Lionel Messi has scored 20 goals (excluding penalties) in LaLiga in 2021, vastly outperforming an expected goals figure of 11.

    Opta data shows he has the biggest positive differential (nine) for any player in the top five European leagues since the start of year.

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