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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Spotlight already on Niko Kovac as he prepares to take over as Bayern Munich manager

Bayern's left-field choice to succeed Jupp Heynckes was also not their first choice, and the controversy generated by the announcement of his appointment will have added to the pressure of managing a big club

Eintracht Frankfurt manager Niko Kovac is in the limelight at the moment. Martin Meissner / AP Photo
Eintracht Frankfurt manager Niko Kovac is in the limelight at the moment. Martin Meissner / AP Photo

Bayern Munich have appointed a slightly left-field, even surprising choice as their next manager. But anybody alarmed they have betrayed time-honoured habits will feel assured that the way they have gone about the hiring is fully Bayern.

A cocktail of controversy, resentment from domestic rivals and spicy soundbites accompanied the deal to make Niko Kovac the Bayern manager as of June.

Kovac was on Wednesday night busy trying to give his current club, Eintracht Frankfurt, the send-off to the season his efforts there have earned, as they tackled Schalke in the German Cup semi-final.

The lead-up had featured some colourful name-calling between Frankfurt and Munich, Eintracht angered by the way news of Kovac’s next job was leaked at a crucial stage in the season. “Unprofessional and disrespectful,” Fredi Bobic, the Eintracht director of sport and one of Kovac’s closest friends, called it.

Bayern snapped back, through their president Uli Hoeness, who has several decades experience of his club being accused of riding roughshod over Bundesliga rivals and matters of protocol. Hoeness called Bobic’s remarks “rather unprofessional”.

He also declined to answer reporters’ enquiries about when Bayern had made the approach to Kovac, who is under contract with Eintracht until 2019. His blunt response was: “You are not the state prosecutor!”

No, Bayern are not on trial for a predatory approach for another club’s most important employee. Nor are they in trouble for their part in any disruption the announcement might cause to Eintracht’s bid to end up in the qualifying positions for European competitions in the remaining four matches.

After all, this is a league campaign in which Bayern have already celebrated their usual first place in the table. But from now on Kovac will certainly feel he is under the scrutiny of critics as sharp as any prosecutor.

He felt he had no choice, despite his contractual situation and closeness to Bobic, but to say yes to one of the grandest jobs in the sport. But he looks like a relative novice for it.

The star-studded Bayern Munich side are enjoying another successful season. Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters
The star-studded Bayern Munich side are enjoying another successful season. Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters

Kovac’s appointment is unlike the last five Bayern have made to the post, excluding short-term caretakers. Louis van Gaal, Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti and Jupp Heynckes – the latter appointed three times during the past decade – had all won the European Cup with other clubs.

Kovac, 47, has never taken charge of a European tie at club level.

So the word "risk" has cropped up a lot in assessments of his suitability to take on the towering expectations of this superheavyweight, an institution which may no longer be known so often by the nickname ‘FC Hollywood’ as it used to be, but one which generates endless headlines, as it did last week when Bayern got into their spat with Eintracht.

What Kovac does have in his favour is some familiarity with Bayern’s juggernaut, its crankier gears and its smooth ones. He played in midfield at the club for two years from 2001, joining the then reigning European champions and feeling the tensions when Bayern fell short of standards.

He had his FC Hollywood moment, too, involved in a feverishly-reported training ground bust-up with a colleague, Bixente Lizarazu.

He was not Bayern’s first choice as manager. Hoeness has pleaded, in vain, with Heynckes, who took over from Ancelotti last October and has guided Bayern to next week’s Champions League semi-final as well as the league title, to stay on beyond his 73rd birthday.

Former Borussia Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel was a candidate to take over at Bayern Munich. Christian Bruna / EPA
Former Borussia Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel was a candidate to take over at Bayern Munich. Christian Bruna / EPA

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There was strong interest in Thomas Tuchel, formerly of Borussia Dortmund, but now in advanced talks with Paris Saint-Germain. Plan Kovac is Plan C, and supporters and Bayern’s large squad of serial champions know that.

But Kovac, a former Croatia captain and national manager, is recommended by his work at Eintracht, his second club job after a stint in charge of the juniors at Red Bull Salzburg. He took over in Frankfurt only a little more than two years ago amid threatened relegation. His uplift includes not only the bid for a Europa League spot but a silver medal in the German Cup in 2017.

“He makes every player he works with improve,” says the Eintracht striker Kevin-Prince Boateng, a footballer who has had his differences with some of his bosses over a varied career.

At Eintracht, Kovac has shown a gift for motivation, and resourcefulness on a limited budget. The football has not always been elegant, so his harnessing of Bayern’s cadre of fine wingers and playmakers will be observed with interest from August.

So will the way he deals with superstars. “He knows when to go in hard,” Boateng advises.

He may need that.