BERLIN -- Two years after taking over relegation-threatened Eintracht Frankfurt, Niko Kovac is on the verge of taking the side into the Champions League.
It would be the German club's first appearance in Europe's premier competition since the 1960 European Cup final, a spectacular game won by Real Madrid 7-3 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Frankfurt is fourth in the Bundesliga with nine games remaining, level on points with Borussia Dortmund ahead of their clash in Dortmund on Sunday, and just one point behind second-place Schalke.
The side's success is largely down to the 46-year-old Kovac, relatively inexperienced as a coach when he took over on March 8, 2016, but who has won the players to his side through tactical nous, commitment, and by convincing them of the value of sacrifice for the team.
"Mentality beats quality," says Kovac, who previously coached Croatia.
Frankfurt was languishing in the relegation playoff place with just five wins from its opening 25 games when Kovac took over. He won four of the next nine to secure the playoff, where Frankfurt defeated Nuremberg 2-1 on aggregate to stay in the top flight. Kovac was honored with a fair-play award for comforting desolate Nuremberg players after the game.
With Bundesliga survival secured, Kovac and sporting director Bruno Huebner oversaw a huge shake-up of the squad. Players such as Carlos Zambrano and Stefan Aigner moved on. Several untested but ambitious players came in. Loan deals were struck for the likes of Jesus Vallejo from Real Madrid and Ante Rebic from Fiorentina.
Despite 17 nationalities among his young side, Kovac managed to forge a strong unit built on defensive stability and team commitment - qualities he himself displayed as Croatia captain and as a defensive midfielder for Hertha Berlin, Bayern Munich, Hamburger SV and Bayer Leverkusen.
A mid-table place in the league followed last year, as well as a place in the German Cup final. Despite Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's penalty giving Dortmund a 2-1 win in the final, Kovac was able to reflect on a successful season.
"This campaign was extraordinarily good," Kovac said at the time.
There were more changes in the offseason, and again Kovac and Huebner appear to have made the right calls. Kevin-Prince Boateng arrived on a free transfer and has provided invaluable experience, leadership, and goals.
As well as fighting with Schalke, Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen, and Leipzig for a place among Europe's best, Frankfurt has another shot at reaching the German Cup final with a semifinal to come against Schalke.
"We function very, very well as a team," says Boateng, who knew Kovac from their time together at Hertha. Both are West Berliners.
"The coach keeps the team together brilliantly. Respect is hugely important in such a collective. Everyone respects the other," says Boateng, reinvigorated since his move to Frankfurt.
Little-known French forward Sebastien Haller also arrived from Utrecht and is the side's top-scorer with eight league goals and four in the cup. Marius Wolf, whose loan deal from Hannover was made permanent, has emerged as a candidate for Germany's World Cup squad after some stand-out performances.
Kovac's hand in Frankfurt's upward swing is clear to see. The team's spirit was illustrated recently while beating Leipzig 2-1. The home players tore into Leipzig, refusing the visitor any time to settle.
However, that game was followed by a meek 1-0 defeat in Stuttgart, denying Frankfurt the chance to go to second. Kovac says it showed the difference between top players and top teams.
"After one good game they deliver another," Kovac says. "We're not as good yet as many would like us to be."
Frankfurt bounced back last weekend by edging Hannover 1-0, staying fourth, a point ahead of Leverkusen. Fourth place would guarantee Champions League qualification - and surprise many.
"Nobody thought it would go so well," Boateng says of Frankfurt's season. "That's why it's so nice. We really worked for it."
Boateng says Kovac is key to the side's success.
"If you have a top team and you're up there, then it's normal. Perhaps we weren't a top team in the beginning," Boateng says, "but we've become one now through hard work and because everyone gets along."