Soccer-World-Coaching novice Kovac has Croatia in good spirits

By Zoran Milosavljevic April 28 (Reuters) - Having missed Croatia's greatest international success as a player through injury, Niko Kovac will head to the World Cup hoping he can reach similar heights with the Balkan nation in a coaching capacity after guiding them to the finals. The 42-year-old former defensive midfielder was thrown into the fray at the most delicate moment in qualifying, three weeks ahead of Croatia's 2-0 aggregate playoff win over Iceland after they had lost three of their last four group matches under Igor Stimac. Kovac, who scored 14 goals in 83 internationals but was sidelined when Croatia finished third in the 1998 tournament, steadied the ship and passed the first real test of his coaching career with flying colours. Known for his no-nonsense approach as a player, he was put in charge of Croatia's Under-21 side in January 2013 and made a perfect start in the qualifying competition for the European Under-21 2015 championship after winning his opening four games. With the senior team all at sea after stuttering to a runners-up finish in European Group A and Stimac falling out with players, fans and the media, the Croatian FA saw Kovac as a natural replacement and he has repaid their faith handsomely. Following a 0-0 draw in Iceland, he got everything right in the return leg as his team selection and formation resulted in a comfortable 2-0 win after Croatia were reduced to 10 men when striker Mario Mandzukic was sent off in the first half shortly after scoring the opener. Re-adjusting his formation without battering-ram Mandzukic, suspended for the World Cup opener against hosts Brazil in Sao Paulo, will be a tough test of Kovac's know-how at the highest level. But although he lacks experience, the German-born Kovac will hardly be overawed by the task or the occasion as he played at two World Cups as an automatic starter for his country in the 2002 and 2006. Ten years in the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen, Hamburg SV, Bayern Munich and Hertha Berlin will also come in handy for Kovac, whose younger brother Robert is his assistant. The two played together at Leverkusen and Bayern before Niko's return to Hertha in 2003. He moved to Austria's Red Bull Salzburg in 2006 and retired three years later after winning the 2007 league title and the national cup in 2008, having also clinched the Intercontinental Cup with Bayern in 2001. Reunited with his brother in a bid to reach the knockout stages in Brazil and perhaps try to emulate Croatia's 1998 feat, Niko Kovac will need to muster all the steel of his playing days if he is to survive a tough preliminary group also including Mexico and Cameroon. (Editing by Ed Osmond and Mike Collett)

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