Under-fire Bayern Munich coach Niko Kovac is staring down the barrel as his team look to bag a place in the Champions League last 16 just as their domestic title bid appears to be crumbling.
The Bundesliga champions need just a point against Benfica in the Allianz Arena on Tuesday to qualify for the competition’s knockout stages, but as they gun for their seventh straight league title their form has collapsed.
Pressure on Kovac intensified following the weekend’s shock 3-3 home draw with lowly Fortuna Dusseldorf, which left them nine points behind leaders Borussia Dortmund, but the Croat says he will not back down from the battle in his first season in charge.
“Those who know me know I’m a fighter… the words ‘give up’ and ‘raise the white flag’ aren’t in my vocabulary,” Kovac said.
“I will always look forward and always fight.”
Kovac’s position became more precarious when livid Bayern chief Uli Hoeness said after the draw with Fortuna that the club would undertake “an analysis” after the Benfica clash.
Hoeness blasted his players’ performances as “unacceptable” after they threw away a two-goal lead and conceded a stoppage-time equaliser from hat-trick hero Dodi Lukebakio.
“The problem isn’t that we have no ideas, it’s more about how we put our ideas into practice,” said Kovac.
“Manuel Neuer said after the match (against Fortuna): ‘if we had put into practice what the coach asked us, we would have won’.”
The draw means that Bayern have only one twice in eight Bundesliga matches, a run that stretches back to late September. In contrast, they are unbeaten in their Champions League Group E campaign.
A win on Tuesday could see Bayern ensure top spot in the group, although Ajax are travelling to AEK Athens, who have conceded 10 goals on their way to losing all four of their matches.
Kovac’s work has been made harder by a raft of injuries, with Corentin Tolisso, Kingsley Coman, Thiago, James Rodriguez and Serge Gnabry all out of action, but nonetheless his team is close to qualifying for the last 16 of Europe’s top club competition with a game to spare.
“We cannot throw everything overboard, it does not work that way,” Kovac said.
“I hope that tomorrow, in the Champions League, the boys will give their all, and I am convinced of it”.