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Kovac will be judged on Champions League success at Bayern

Can Niko succeed where Guardiola and Ancelotti failed?

Eintracht Frankfurt Cup Gala - DFB Cup Final 2018 Photo by Andreas Wolf - Pool/Getty Images

When Bayern Munich lifted the Champions League back in 2013, following an enthralling 2-1 victory over domestic rivals Borussia Dortmund at Wembley, it was supposed to be the start of something special for the Bavarian side. Having collected the Bundesliga title as well as coming out victorious in the DFB Pokal that year, Bayern had completed a historic treble, ending the Jupp Heynckes era with an almighty satisfying season. Pep Guardiola, the architect of arguably the greatest Barcelona team of all time, was lined up to carry the torch and ensure that Bayern’s domination continued.

Unfortunately, Guardiola never got close to replicating Heynckes’ success. And that’s not a knock on the Spaniard, who dedicated much of his three-year spell in Germany to converting Bayern into a possession-based team, full of technically superior players. The likes of Thiago Alcantara were brought in to (eventually) replace club legend Bastian Schweinsteiger as Munich insisted on a changing of the guard in hopes of reclaiming their status as Europe’s best. A thrashing at the hands of 2014 winners Real Madrid in the semi-finals wasn’t exactly how Pep envisioned his first year in Europe’s premier competition going, and that it didn’t get much better from there on is a testament to just how hard it can be to topple the continent’s best.

Barcelona, led by a magical Lionel Messi, cruised past Munich the following year en route to yet another Champions League trophy for the Catalans while the stubborn Atletico Madrid stood in the way in 2016. Looking back, that was the year where Bayern’s Pep project should have culminated in a European Cup final but the organisation of Diego Simeone’s side was too solid to break down. A missed penalty from Thomas Muller in the second-leg didn’t help matters, but Bayern weren’t the first team to struggle to get one over on Atletico in a knockout format, and they certainly won’t be the last. Just ask Arsenal, who couldn’t even finish them off during this year’s Europa League semifinal clash in London, despite Atleti playing the majority of the match with 10 men. That contest finished 1-1, in large part due to Jan Oblak’s heroics, but the point being Atletico are as tough as they come, and some would argue it’s an easier task to face Barca or Real due to their penchant to attack and leave space open for the opposition to exploit, a habit rarely seen by Los Rojiblancos.

After reaching three finals in four years, and finally tasting success in the final event, Bayern somehow failed to capitalize on that momentum, and the genius of Guardiola, to add more European Cups to an already prestigious trophy cabinet. Though Pep brought much domestic success with 3 league titles and 2 national cups, his shortcomings in Europe left his Bayern reign with much to be desired. Ultimately, that is how managers at this proud club are judged. Whether you consider it harsh or unfair, it’s the reality for any coach coming through the doors at ‘FC Hollywood’. As he takes his first preseason since coming over from the over-achieving Eintracht Frankfurt, Niko Kovac will be well aware of the criticism facing him should his results be similar.

The Croat, who in his final game as Frankfurt manager led his side to a shocking win over Bayern in the DFB Pokal final, will be ready for the challenge. Turning 47 years old in October, Kovac didn’t necessarily have to grab his big opportunity now if he felt he wasn’t quite ready for the stress and strain that comes with the Munich job. Even Guardiola claims it was the toughest place he’s managed due to the expectations that come with the post, and as Bayern reportedly favoured Thomas Tuchel before he committed to French giants Paris Saint-Germain, Kovac will be aware that his status as a second choice only increases the pressure.

Though if there’s one advantage that the former Bayern player has in his favour, it’s that his style of play is more suited to the club’s way than his predecessors’. Guardiola’s attempt to implement a tiki-taka style was met with some backlash in Bavaria; the players even refused to adopt his tactics in that semifinal defeat to Real four years ago, while Carlo Ancelotti’s conservative approach won him little support during his disastrous spell at the helm. Kovac, however, prefers speed over possession, a strategy that Bayern fans can get behind considering the success they achieved the last time it was properly used at the Allianz Arena. The quick and slick counter-attacking team of 2013 ripped through Manchester United and Barcelona en route to the win in Wembley. The opposition struggled to keep up with Arjen Robben’s space-opening runs for Philip Lahm on the overlap, while David Alaba and Franck Ribery caused headaches on the opposite flank. Muller, then only 23 years old, could have been mistaken for a Duracell battery with the amount of energy he demonstrated, while Toni Kroos was still pulling the strings in midfield alongside the wily veteran, Schweinsteiger. It was a team built on speed and reliant on effective execution. Kovac, we hope, has a similar plan in store.

There are probably more obstacles facing this current Bayern side than the 2014-16 era. PSG have continued to climb the ladder of European football, at least in terms of making headline signings — Gigi Buffon the latest ‘galactico’ signing — while the death of English football has been greatly exaggerated, as Man City and Liverpool are expected to be serious contenders in this year’s Champions League. Cristiano Ronaldo, a usual suspect torturing the Bayern backline, has jumped ship to Juventus to help the Old Lady claim their first European Cup in over 20 years, and the Spanish trio of Barca, Ateltico and three-time winners Real will be as good as ever. Add in a mix of the young, surprise packages of Monaco, Lyon and a resurgent Inter Milan, and the 2018-19 tournament looks to be a tough one to predict. Bearing that in mind, perhaps Kovac will be given more leeway than Guardiola and Ancelotti, though that remains to be seen.

It’s bound to be an exciting season for Bayern, if only due to the anticipation of Kovac’s arrival. It was an unexpected appointment, though that means nothing once the new campaign kicks off in a months time. It’s likely going to be February or March when the new man receives his first proper test in Europe’s elite tournament. As the club’s shortcomings in the Champions League have been a primary reason for the recent coaching changes, it’s then that the reviews of Kovac’ debut year will come in — in abundance. Whatever the reaction, let’s hope by the end of it all he’s holding a certain big-eared trophy aloft.

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