Ante Rebic and Niko Kovac earn Eintracht fairlytale DFB Cup win
In ending a 30-year wait for silverware, last year’s beaten finalists also booked a place in the UEFA Europa League group stage – not a bad way for future Bayern boss Niko Kovac to end his reign with the Eagles.
The underdogs produced a tactical masterclass against Bayern in Berlin, preying on the double-chasing Bavarians’ defensive frailties thanks to Ante Rebic, and then soaring to victory thanks to supersub Mijat Gacinovic’s last-gasp, empty-net goal. The fairytale nature of the victory was added to by the fact that defender Marco Russ – who took time out of the game after being diagnosed with cancer in May 2016 – was sent on for the last 16 minutes to help the Eagles over the line.
“Football writes the most beautiful stories,” Kovac said after a pulsating game at the Olympiastadion. “When you stick together, you can achieve anything.”
The long hunt for silverware is finally over. Eintracht were German champions in 1959 – before the formation of the Bundesliga – and runners-up in the European Cup in 1960.
Their first major trophy of the professional era arrived in 1974 – when they won the DFB Cup for the first time – and their sole success in Europe came when they were crowned UEFA Cup winners in 1980.
Since last winning the DFB Cup in 1988, though, it has been something of a famine for Eintracht. They have been relegated four times since 1997, and only Kovac’s arrival in March 2016 – and a play-off win over Nuremburg – prevented them from dropping into the second tier again.
Having spent much of the current campaign flying high in the top four of the Bundesliga, it seemed that Kovac could lead them to a place in next season’s UEFA Champions League. However, a poor finish – which coincided with speculation and then confirmation that the former Croatia player and manager would leave for Bayern next season – saw them finish eighth.
That meant they had to beat Bayern in the cup final to qualify for Europe, and Kovac saw a fellow international compatriot fire them to an upset victory over the runaway league champions.
Watch: How Kovac transformed Frankfurt
“Bayern are always favourites, but in the end we won the cup,” Rebic said after the game.
Having signed a permanent deal in December to stay in Frankfurt following an extended loan spell from Fiorentina, Rebic might as well be given the freedom of the city after ending 30 years of hurt for the club’s supporters.
The spritely attacker led the line superbly against Bayern, looking a constant danger with the little possession he got. He forced the opening goal on 11 minutes, robbing James of possession before racing onto Kevin-Prince Boateng’s pass and thrashing past Sven Ulreich.
And it could have been even better for the underdogs before half-time, when Rebic led Niklas Süle a merry dance and laid it on a plate for Jonathan De Guzman – only to see his teammate lose his footing at the crucial moment.
Rebic almost conjured up a goal all on his own after Mats Hummels had hit the bar for Bayern with 10 minutes remaining. But after seeing his long-range strike curl narrowly wide, the former RB Leipzig man would get one more chance to be the hero. Bursting on to Danny Da Costa’s hopeful pass over the top, he nodded the ball between Süle and Hummels before calmly lifting the ball past Ulreich.
“I’m delighted that we’ve won the cup again after 30 years,” Rebic declared, after helping the Eagles to win the DFB Cup for the fifth time in the club’s history. “The team deserved it.”
Following over a month out through injury, the official man of the match had only returned to the squad for the Matchday 34 loss against Schalke. He had played merely the second half in that game, but the player he replaced in the starting line-up for the cup final would also have his moment to savour.
Introduced on the hour, Gacinovic made his mark at the death. After Bayern had a strong penalty claim turned down, the Serbian went coast to coast in injury-time to score into an empty net goal and send the Eagles’ supporters into raptures.
Three decades is a long time – but some things are worth waiting for.