In-form Olic powering Bayern
Bayern Munich will begin the second leg of the UEFA Champions League semi-final at a slight advantage, having beaten Lyon 1-0 at home last week. The German giants will be hoping for a rerun of their 2001 campaign, when they recorded back-to-back wins over Real Madrid in the last four, before overcoming Valencia on penalties to lift the trophy.
Almost a decade on, a resurgent Bayern side are on the verge of yet another historic European triumph, but will have to negotiate the trip to France without the services of their talisman Franck Ribery, who was red-carded in the opening leg. In the absence of the French superstar, coach Louis van Gaal will be looking to his other creative players to fill the void, and that includes Ivica Olic. The Croatian arrived in Munich last summer on a free transfer and has quickly established himself as a key figure in the Dutchman’s squad.
The left-footed forward has played more than 36 competitive games for his new club, clocking up more appearances than household names such as Mario Gomez, who cost close to €30m, and Miroslav Klose, the winner of the adidas Golden Shoe at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™.
The 30-year-old has 14 goals and eight assists to his name this season, and has been a key factor in Bayern’s impressive Champions League campaign. Indeed, Olic netted the winner against Maccabi Haifa in the group phase before helping his side check into the knockout phase by winning a penalty and also scoring in a 4-1 rout of Juventus in Turin. In the home leg of their last-16 tie with Fiorentina, he set up the winner for Klose in a close-fought 2-1 victory, before finding the target in both legs against Manchester United to help Bayern into the last four on away goals.
However, statistics alone can not do justice to Olic. He works tirelessly for his team-mates, both on the training ground and on the pitch, and has that all-important streak of self-belief.
"I hope I’ve made myself the first choice striker," he said recently. "The truth is I’ve been playing really well recently and my self-confidence has never been higher. The coach tells me I’ll play and then what he expects of me, and I feel I’ve shown him what I can do in the last few weeks."
Work to do
Olic’s professional career began in 1996, at the age of 17 with NK Marsonia in his homeland. After two years on the periphery at Hertha Berlin, where he only made two Bundesliga appearances, the tall front-runner returned to Croatia. After two more seasons with Marsonia, the striker moved on to NK Zagreb and subsequently to Dinamo Zagreb.
In 2003, he left home again for a foreign adventure that was to be a lot happier than his first one in Berlin. He celebrated three championships, two cup wins and success in the UEFA Cup with Russian outfit CSKA Moscow.
"It wasn’t easy in Moscow," he said. "I had to compete for my place with Vagner Love and Jo. But there were two positions for three people. Now (in Munich) there are five top players fighting for a single spot. That’s really tough."
His exploits did not go unnoticed around Europe. Hamburg paid around €2m for the international striker during the 2006/07 winter break and were well rewarded for their investment, the player maintaining a rich vein of form right up until last season. By then, Olic had attracted a number of suitors, but it was Bayern who finally secured his signature.
"At Bayern, only first is good enough," explained the three-time Croatian player of the year before the start of this season. "If you don’t win the league, it’s seen as a tragedy. Of course, the Champions League is always possible but you need the rub of the green. That’s what really makes the difference."
He and his team mates now have the possibility of winning the historic treble of the Bundesliga, German Cup and Champions League. However, Olic has banished all thoughts of the decider in Madrid to focus fully on the second leg of the semi-final in Lyon: "I’m determined to reach the final but we still have a lot of work to do. I for one will be giving my all."