Celebration and despair on hold. Football at a standstill. The uncertainty of not knowing, awaiting shady guidance from those on high who have shown they do not really know better.
Perhaps it was only natural that football’s return to the Red Bull Arena in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic left us at the whim of VAR.
For a fleeting moment, Robin Koch thought he had stolen the points for Freiburg. The visitors had taken the lead in the first half and spurned it in the second. But in the third of four injury time minutes at the death, Lucas Holer’s ball into a congested Leipzig penalty area found the defender free to make it 2-1.
Alas, the decision to disallow was correct – Holer was just offside – and a point for both sides it was to be: one more valuable to Freiburg in seventh chasing a Europa League spot and far from ideal for an RB Leipzig side who have been stewing on a five-point deficit from the top for last two months. That will almost certainly extend to eight by Sunday evening. Borussia Dortmund’s demolition of Schalke, putting them three ahead of Leipzig in second, has not helped either.
This was a Leipzig performance typical of the time: disjointed and confused. The fundamentals they seemed to know so well are not so familiar anymore. Unrecognisable from the team that ran rings around Tottenham here back in March. More generally, they provided a snapshot of how tough coming back to football will be.
Amid all the pontificating about which facets would wane during this coronavirus-enforced break, set-pieces got the least airtime. Understandable of course.
A sport that wows through its speed, athleticism and technicality was always going to return a less slick version of itself. But the dulling of physical attributes can be ticked over to some extent.
RB Leipzig started as such: snappy passes led to Konrad Laimer having the game’s first shot within two minutes, albeit one dragged wide of the far post. Christopher Nkunku, first onto a clearance to the edge of the box, elicited two thumps that echoed off the empty stands – the first from his right boot, the second from the clenched firsts of Alexander Schwolow in the Freiburg goal.
And on 14 minutes, Timo Werner showed his time in lockdown wasn’t spent baking banana bread or mainlining wine, exhibiting that sprinter’s gait as the one-man counter attack drew another, easier save from Schwolow.
But having had things their own way, on 34 minutes we had confirmation that the more cerebral parts of the game are much tougher to hold onto. You cannot groove your marking at the front post in a gym. Nor does your alertness to danger in your peripheral vision stay with you as you patrol the supermarket aisles for yeast.
It explains why a lacklustre corner from Vincenzo Grifo was allowed to get beyond the near post where, somehow, Manuel Gulde was allowed to jump in front of the second defender and clip one into the far corner with his left heel. The celebration of elbow bumps from those in purple were as odd as the manner of the opening goal.
And yet, for the apoplexy on the face of head coach Julian Nagelsmann, his side could have been two down before his faced-masked team talk at half-time. Freiburg skipper Christian Gunter should have found the goal instead of dragging wide when he had time and space beyond Leipzig’s defence.
The second 45 was pretty much all the hosts, who channeled their anxiety to fuel a relentless assault on Schwolow in the absence of their well-choreographed home support.
The introduction of Ademola Lookman and Marcel Sabitzer kept the artillery restocked, and Lookman should have found the net when picked out by Kevin Kampl for a chance six yards out, even if the flag did go up.
But the Englishman’s introduction allowed Werner to roam and it was on these travels he almost found an equaliser with 18 minutes to go. This time Schwolow’s right boot preserved Freiburg’s lead.
As legitimate chances came and went, you wondered if a day like no other was set to be “one of those days”, particularly for Yussuf Poulsen. An array of snapped shots from the Danish forward reeked of desperation and ring-rust, especially an effort high over the bar from inside the box when every part of the goal looked enticing.
Nevertheless, it was fifth time lucky when he rose uncontested to head Kampl’s check-back-and-cross to finally beat Schwolow.
As the clock ran down, those physical attributes waned more than the usually do. And as Freiburg began to tire from their relentless chasing of the ball, there were chances for Leipzig to re-emerge from the break with three points. But as Patrick Schick air-kicked from Angelino’s cross and Lookman’s scuffed cross dribbled out of play, a point is all it was going to be.
Of course, it could have been worse. But not even the comfort of falling on the right side of VAR will make up for ceding ground in the title race so soon after this restart.