x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Much at stake in battle of the Hoeness brothers

Dieter and Uli Hoeness are facing headaches as their underachieving clubs, Steve McClaren's Wolfsburg and Bayern Munich respectively, meet.

Wolfsburg's Edin Dzeko, now with Manchester City, looks glum as his side head to defeat against Energie Cottbus last month.
Wolfsburg's Edin Dzeko, now with Manchester City, looks glum as his side head to defeat against Energie Cottbus last month.

It was always set to be a big day for the Hoeness brothers, the Bundesliga resuming this weekend: Uli, 59, against Dieter, 58, in the battle of executives. The elder Hoeness spent the new year pondering criticism from Franz Beckenbauer, his club president, over his role in a frothing controversy about Bayern's goalkeeping position.

Dieter, who has the same job at Wolfsburg that Uli Hoeness holds at Bayern, that of general manager, has a weightier burden on his shoulders: To show that the €40 million (Dh196.6m) he spent last summer can yield something better than a relegation battle.

Wolfsburg and Bayern are the season's biggest underachievers so far. The Wolves, who invested more money than any other German club in new signings six months ago, sit 13th in the table; Bayern, defending champions, are only fifth. "It shows how tough a league the Bundesliga is," said Steve McClaren, the Wolfsburg coach, whose background is mainly in his native English football. "It's like the Premier League in that sense. There really are no easy games."

Certainly, none of McClaren's last nine fixtures have been. It is that long since Wolfsburg won. McClaren himself seemed to be facing dismissal, only half a season into his Bundesliga adventure, just before Christmas when Wolfsburg fell out of the German Cup at the hands of second-division Energie Cottbus.

Dieter Hoeness, who had recruited the former England manager fresh from leading Twente Enschede to the Dutch Eredivisie title, decided McClaren should stay, but with a stark proviso. "We will look at a major restructure of the squad next summer," Dieter Hoeness said. Quite where that leaves McClaren is unknown.

The other major decision of the winter break has been to sell the Wolfsburg captain, Edin Dzeko.

Dzeko, the leading scorer in the Bundesliga in 2009/10, has gone for €35m to Manchester City. "We have to move on now," McClaren said. His trouble is that he does so from a weak position, with his long-term future in considerable doubt. Even his short-term prospects are cloudy, simply because of the fixture list. After meeting the champions, Wolfsburg must play second-placed Mainz and then table-topping Borussia Dortmund.

"Nothing's easy," McClaren said. "It's important we look forward to these games.

"The players are all disappointed with how the first half of the season went."

In that, McClaren would hear encouraging echoes from his personnel. "The coach has the players' confidence," the goalkeeper Diego Benaglio said. "We know he's a good coach."

Said Simon Kjaer, the Danish defender and one of the costly recruits of the summer, at €16m: "I like working with Steve McClaren. He's one of those coaches whose work in the practice ground is very thorough and points directly at what you need to do in games."

Over in Uli Hoeness's lair, Bayern's January has been marked by one major controversy. Coach Louis van Gaal intends to install Thomas Kraft, 22, as his No 1 goalkeeper, promoting him above Hans-Jorg Butt, the 36-year-old veteran. Beckenbauer is one of several senior Bayern loyalists to have criticised the decision, and accused Uli Hoeness of mismanaging the potential recruitment of an established goalkeeper, such as Manuel Neuer of Schalke, as Butt's successor. Kraft is untried in the Bundesliga.

The issue has become political, with Van Gaal entrenched, defending an unpopular decision, with the club's overlords, such as Hoeness and Beckenbauer, in open dispute. As the former Bayern keeper Oliver Kahn told the newspaper Bild, "it may be that Van Gaal now feels he needs to prove his independence in team selection. But, personally, I think the team is safer with Butt. You just don't know how Kraft will respond to the pressure." Of one blessing, young Kraft can be thankful: at least he will not be facing the prolific Dzeko this afternoon.