Much was expected of Liverpool’s showdown with Tottenham in Madrid after the greatest back-to-back semi-finals in Champions League history. But it was a hopeless spectacle for all neutrals. A three-week gap between matches late in the season? Terrible idea.
Now triple that break and remove the fans. It’s hardly surprising that when Bayern Munich arrived in the German capital on Sunday, they looked unlike the table-topping giants who have swept all before them in 2020.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic taking hold in Europe, they were perhaps the continent’s strongest team. They had atoned for the dismal late work of Niko Kovac to claw themselves back into the title picture, and then become its protagonist, and emphatically thumped Chelsea 3-0 at Stamford Bridge in the first leg of the Champions League last 16. Then came the premature curtain call.
Much was expected when they returned some 70 days later. Under interim-turned-permanent boss Hansi Flick, Bayern were unbeaten in the calendar year. But their 2-0 win over Union Berlin on Sunday highlighted problems that ran far beyond their squad.
You can’t alter football and expect the same outcome. With bouncing terraces replaced by empty seats, tip-top condition replaced by rusty limbs, much of the Bundesliga's sort-of-opening weekend lived up to the feared cliché: it felt like a training session. The cries from the players echoing around, the muted celebrations, it all contributed to a mediocre spectacle.
'We knew we had the support at home' - Haaland on Dortmund fans
It wasn’t like Bayern’s performance was especially dull. Had Thomas Muller not intervened when Serge Gnabry’s effort looked set to nestle in the net, instead getting flagged offside, the visitors may have run riot. Even still, Alphonso Davies and Gnabry’s link-up play was excellent, Joshua Kimmich impressed in midfield and Robert Lewandowski took his one chance, a penalty, smartly.
But it wasn’t absorbing. Even Borussia Dortmund’s 4-0 win over Schalke lacked the excitement, it was also background viewing with a couple of extra goals. If ever there was a version of football intended only for consumption in a short highlights package, it's this. The good moments are good. But the rest? The bits where no goals are scored or chances created? It's not entertainment when it takes place in a library.
Football is about passion. About joy unravelling in a tiny section of the stadium as optimism is sapped from the rest. It’s about intensity, intensity that is generated through the fans. And the problem is there's no obvious solution, except experimenting with crowd noises over the public address system to see if it makes it a more natural experience.
Not that Bayern will be too concerned. After swerving a hiccup in Berlin, they have rebuilt their four-point lead. Even if Dortmund do beat them on May 26, the title will still be in their hands. It's now a question of whether people will still be watching come their potential victory lap at June's end.