Niko Kovac goes in to his third consecutive final on the verge of a host of records. But making history against RB Leipzig may not keep him in his job, with much recent attention fixed on Bayern Munich's past and future.
Though it came with a little more jeopardy than they've become accustomed to, Bayern Munich's seventh straight title has reasserted their Bundesliga dominance. But, as much as their superiority over a league season is clear, the Bavarians haven't been able to establish the same stranglehold on the German Cup.
Last season a hard-working, skillful and astutely organized Eintracht Frankfurt, led by a certain Niko Kovac, spoiled Jupp Heynckes' final farewell party with a raucous and rampaging 3-1 win in Berlin. That meant Bayern have lifted the Pokal just once in the past four seasons.
After Bayern extracted a measure of revenge over the Eagles last weekend to secure the title, Kovac could become the first Bayern coach to win the double since Pep Guardiola in 2015-16. Victory for his side would also see the Croatian become the first man to win the double in Germany as a coach and a player, the first man to win successive German Cups since Felix Magath in 2005 and 2006 and the first man to win the cup with different clubs in successive years.
"I don’t have a formula," said Kovac last month when asked to explain his record in the competition, which also includes a final loss to Borussia Dortmund in 2017. "There’s no easy way. You need to be a bit lucky. You need a good draw....you have to show everyone the appreciation they deserve."
Unlike a year ago, when Kovac — freshly announced as Bayern's new coach — was basking in the glow of one of the great cup upsets, that appreciation is proving difficult to come by for the 47-year-old.
The week leading up to Saturday's showpiece has been dominated by reports that Kovac will be dismissed whatever the result while Bayern and the German media have been keen to look back over the careers of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery and forward to the potential signing of Timo Werner and the impact of Borussia Dortmund's trio of new signings rather than assess the chances of a double.
Football websites Goal and Spox reported this week that "damaging behavior" has led to the head coach being "weakened for weeks" with Uli Hoeness, a long-term advocate of Kovac, reportedly beginning to understand the misgivings of CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
The not-so-subtle rumblings and power plays from the back office at Säbener Strasse don't yet seem to have fazed Kovac, who will lead Bayern out in his home town of Berlin as favorites, despite Leipzig's strong season.
"I’m a fighter. I don't fear a challenge; I only look forward to what can be achieved. Apparently I pass this on to my players in the knockout games," he said in an interview with the DFB (German FA) website.
Change coming for Red Bulls
It seems likely that, just as they did in the goalless draw that took the title race down to the wire, RB Leipzig will present Kovac with the kind of challenge he relishes. While the talk of Saturday being Kovac's final game in the Bayern hotseat is conjecture, RB coach Ralf Rangnick will be moving back upstairs to make way for Julian Nagelsmann once the game is done. The 60-year-old, who won the trophy as head coach of Schalke in 2011, would love to finish a successful interim reign with silverware.
"To finish third in the Bundesliga and qualify for the Champions League, whilst also reaching the DFB Pokal final is simply fantastic," he told the DFB site. "We’re extremely motivated when it comes to the cup, partly because we’d never previously reached the quarterfinals. Now we can get excited about the chance to win the competition for the first time in our still relatively short history as a club."
The game pits the league's best attack against its tightest defense, with Leipzig conceding just 29 goals in their 34 Bundesliga games, and Bayern racking up 88. Despite that, Kovac has drawn some criticism for Bayern's perceived negativity in the biggest games, particularly the home loss to finalists Liverpool in the Champions League knockouts.
Though Manuel Neuer and James Rodriguez are back in full training, they remain injury doubts for Bayern, with Leon Goretzka also a possible absentee, while Leipzig look to have no concerns on the fitness front. The same is true for Bayern's departing duo Robben and Ribery, who will be hoping for at least the kind of winning cameo they enjoyed at the weekend.
"[They] are both club legends and have both given an incredible amount of effort to this club and to German football. Everyone wants them to finish their time at the club in style," said Kovac.
Rangnick may not be so keen on seeing the Bayern pair ride off happily into the sunset though Kovac knows that a double would surely be enough to ensure he's not waving goodbye just yet. Wouldn't it?