Frank­furt re­vival as Ko­vac qui­etly leads club to 4th place

Malta Independent - - SPORT -

Ein­tra­cht Frank­furt's lat­est win has got the rest of the Bun­desliga sit­ting up and tak­ing no­tice of Niko Ko­vac.

The for­mer Croa­tia mid­fielder, who took over as coach last March when Frank­furt was in the rel­e­ga­tion zone, has re­vi­tal­ized the un­her­alded club, guid­ing it through a rel­e­ga­tion play­off and qui­etly steer­ing the side to fourth place in the league after its best start in 23 years.

The lat­est vic­tory was a 2-1 win over a for­mi­da­ble Borus­sia Dort­mund on Satur­day.

"I'm happy and proud. I also told the team that," said Ko­vac, who coached Croa­tia's na­tional team at the 2014 World Cup. "I'm a re­al­ist. Ev­ery­one can dream, I won't dream. We were nearly rel­e­gated last year. Now we are where we are and I don't want to over­rate it. We should all be rea­son­able and not start tak­ing off."

Frank­furt — per­haps most fa­mous for its 7-3 loss to Real Madrid in the 1960 Euro­pean Cup fi­nal — trails another sur­pris­ing team, third-place Hertha Ber­lin, on goals scored.

After beat­ing Bay­ern Mu­nich the week­end be­fore and fol­low­ing that up with an 8-4 rout of Le­gia War­saw in the Cham­pi­ons League, Dort­mund was brought back to the re­al­ity of the Bun­desliga by Frank­furt's com­pact de­fense and hard-work­ing mid­field­ers. Dort­mund coach Thomas Tuchel was so frus­trated he made his three changes all at once be­fore an hour was played.

It would have been easy for Frank­furt to panic when Pier­reEm­er­ick Aubameyang equal­ized after Sz­abolcs Huszti's opener, but Huszti set up Haris Se­fer­ovic to score what proved the win­ner just two min­utes later. Se­fer­ovic had been on the field for less than 10 min­utes, prov­ing Ko­vac's in­stincts were right again.

The Frank­furt coach sent his side out in a 3-4-2-1 for­ma­tion with cap­tain Alexan­der Meier up front sup­ported by of­fen­sive mid­field­ers Marco Fabian and Mi­jat Ga­ci­novic. With­out the ball, how­ever, Frank­furt drew back into a 5-4-1 for­ma­tion, mak­ing it hard for Dort­mund's speedy play­ers to find space.

Dort­mund en­joyed more pos­ses­sion while Frank­furt waited to catch the vis­i­tors with coun­ter­at­tacks, a ploy that paid off when Huszti made the break­through right after the in­ter­val.

Ko­vac's side is based on a solid de­fense - only Bay­ern and Cologne have con­ceded less in the league - but the Frank­furt coach knows that key to the club's suc­cess is the abil­ity to strike at the other end.

"If we only con­cen­trate on de­fend­ing it will be dif­fi­cult. We have to find our sal­va­tion also in at­tack," said Ko­vac, whose side has con­ceded only 10 goals after 12 games — a club record.

Financial con­straints meant Ko­vac only had 2.5 mil­lion eu­ros ($2.65 mil­lion) avail­able for trans­fers in the off­sea­son, but with sport­ing di­rec­tor Fredi Bo­bic, he in­vested in good young play­ers from abroad that have deep­ened the pool of tal­ent avail­able.

The side is no longer as re­liant on "Foot­ball God" Meier to lead the side to vic­tory. Under Ko­vac, the 33-year-old for­ward is of­ten benched with Se­fer­ovic, Fabian, Ga­ci­novic or Bra­n­imir Hr­gota pro­vid­ing al­ter­na­tives.

"Ev­ery player brings some­thing from their own cul­ture into the col­lec­tive. So it's an en­rich­ment for all. We're ver­sa­tile," Ko­vac said.

Span­ish de­fender Je­sus Vallejo, who ar­rived on loan from Real Madrid, has praised the work­ing en­vi­ron­ment that Ko­vac pro­vides.

"We have a great team spirit from the start," the 19-year-old Vallejo said. "The coach al­ways tells that when we work as a team each in­di­vid­ual gets stronger through the process."

Ko­vac's side tends to do just enough to win. Satur­day's vic­tory over Dort­mund was the 10th by one goal in 12 com­pet­i­tive vic­to­ries.

Frank­furt is un­beaten in six games at home this sea­son, hav­ing hosted both Dort­mund and Bay­ern at the Wald­sta­dion al­ready, and the side is un­beaten in six straight games, its best run in more than four years.

"Twenty-four points cool," Bo­bic said.

Hard work and mod­est ex­pec­ta­tions have served Frank­furt well so far, even if Se­fer­ovic joked about join­ing the ti­tle chase.

"Third is good, huh? Of course there's still room for im­prove­ment there," the Switzer­land striker said after Satur­day's game, be­fore Hertha's win over Mainz on Sun­day. "But of course we've got to keep both feet on the ground." are al­ready

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