Hans-Dieter Flick, the temporary manager of Bayern Munich, woke up on his 55th birthday yesterday to some promising headlines.
His boss, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, chair of Bayern’s executive board, had given an interview that showered Flick with praise and placed him in elevated company.
"He has a clear plan," Rummenigge told Kicker magazine. "The team is tactically as well set up as it was under Louis van Gaal, Jupp Heynckes or Pep Guardiola." Bayern, Rummenigge added, "had their dominant, attacking, possession game" back again, some four months after Flick was promoted in an emergency, after the sacking of Niko Kovac.
Flick will appreciate the words, though he may smile at Rummenigge’s talk of a clear plan. He does not know very clearly Bayern’s plan for him.
Initially taken on as a stop-gap, he was guaranteed the manager’s role until the end of the season after an encouraging first six weeks in charge. But no commitment has been made beyond June.
“If they want another coach after that,” said Flick at the weekend, “my world will not collapse.” He has hinted strongly there are other good jobs on offer to him.
What happens on Tuesday at Chelsea, where Bayern play the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie, will go some way to shaping Bayern’s thinking on ‘Hansi’, as Flick is known, and whether he will be offered the sort of long-term contract that van Gaal, Heynckes and Guardiola would have regarded as their right.
That trio have all won European Cups as managers. Flick has only ever taken charge of three European matches. Bayern is his first job as manager of a top division team.
At 55, he is a late-comer, though his work in various assistant-coach roles, including for Germany’s 2014 World Cup winners had long ago gained him wide respect. Nor, as a novice to knockout phase Champions League, is he unusual in this season’s competition.
Napoli and Barcelona, who also play on Tuesday, will both be guided by men – Rino Gattuso and Quique Setien – managing in the Champions League for the very first time. Neither Valencia’s Albert Celades or RB Leipzig’s Julian Nagelsmann had, before last week, taken charge of a last-16 European Cup tie.
As for the Chelsea manager, Frank Lampard, he is a first-timer managing at this rarified level, even if as a player, he experienced the lights and the suspense of the Champions League later rounds as a matter of routine.
He was the captain on the most celebrated night of his Chelsea's history, the defeat of Bayern in Munich in the final of the 2012 European Cup. But the 41-year-old has been managing for less than two years, and in charge of an elite club only since June.
Frankie and Hansi, to give them the boyish versions of their names, share some background. They are intimately connected to the clubs who have placed faith in their coaching nous.
Flick was a midfielder for Bayern in the late 1980s, four times a Bundesliga champion and a European Cup finalist in 1987. Lampard may be the finest midfielder in Chelsea’s history. He is the club’s all-time leading goalscorer.
He is fresh from a tactical triumph, too, his Chelsea having firmed up their hold on fourth place in the Premier League with a win in Saturday’s London derby against Tottenham Hotspur, the second time in barely two months he has outwitted Spurs’s Jose Mourinho.
Lampard’s four team changes for the game included the two goalscorers in the 2-1 victory, Olivier Giroud and Marcos Alonso, and his use of a back three proved canny.
Flick meanwhile is riding a superb run of form. Bayern were seventh in the Bundesliga in mid-December. They are now top, having dropped just two points from their last available 27.
The prolific Robert Lewandowski remains their most potent weapon – his 38th goal of the season defeated a Paderborn who came back from a goal down twice at the weekend – and the best argument for Bayern making this season’s final.
But Flick’s trick has also been to stimulate some corners of a deep, talented squad that had seemed neglected.
“He has pressed the right buttons,” said the defender David Alaba, who, like the long-serving Thomas Muller, seems revived under the new manager. “We are playing the way we used to and the atmosphere is right.”
For Flick, still gaining experience, the know-how of his veterans is an asset to cultivate. He can look across Bayern’s squad and count on seven players with more than 50 Champions League matches under their belts.
Lampard lacks that luxury. His first journey as a manager into the business end of the game’s most glamorous club competition will be made, mostly, with young players, who can be thrillingly fearless, but also a little unworldly.