Sports

Frankfurt revival as Kovac quietly leads club to 4th place

FILE - In this Nov. 26, 2016 file picture Frankfurt's Szabolcs Huszti celebrates a goal during a German Bundesliga soccer match between Eintracht Frankfurt and Borussia Dortmund in Frankfurt, Germany. Frankfurt's coach, Niko Kovac,, 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, its best start in 23 years. (AP Photo/Michael Probst,file)

FILE - In this Nov. 26, 2016 file picture Frankfurt's Szabolcs Huszti celebrates a goal during a German Bundesliga soccer match between Eintracht Frankfurt and Borussia Dortmund in Frankfurt, Germany. Frankfurt's coach, Niko Kovac,, 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, its best start in 23 years. (AP Photo/Michael Probst,file)

BERLIN — 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 defence 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 Pierre-Emerick 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 defence - 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 off-season , 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 are already 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."