Frankfurt's brilliant Balkan trio out to make history against Chelsea

Alongside Jovic, forward Ante Rebic and Filip Kostic make up a blistering Balkan trio who have helped fire unfancied Frankfurt into the semifinals of the Europa League.

Luka Jovic during Frankfurt's training session ahead of their Europa League semifinal first leg match against Chelsea.   -  AFP Photo

Eintracht Frankfurt's Serbia striker Luka Jovic may have grabbed the headlines and turned the heads of Europe's top clubs with his goals this season, but he is just one of a trio of brilliant Balkans in Frankfurt's ranks.

Alongside 21-year-old talent Jovic, Croatia forward Ante Rebic, 25, and Serbian wing-back Filip Kostic, 26, make up a blistering Balkan trio who have helped fire unfancied Frankfurt into the semifinals of the Europa League, where it faces Chelsea in the first leg on Thursday.

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While Jovic has earned plaudits in the Bundesliga and beyond with his form in front of goal, Rebic has remained the beating heart of Frankfurt's attack, and Kostic has gone from relegation flop to European success story.

The three players are emblematic of Frankfurt's success in recent years, the result of dedicated hard work, clever transfers and fearless football.

- Goals galore -

The Balkan triumvirate have scored over half of Frankfurt's 58 Bundesliga goals this season, and added 21 league assists for good measure. They have been involved in all but one of Frankfurt's last 13 goals in all competitions.

In fact, German pundits have become so used to praising Jovic, Kostic and Rebic that they have even begun to forget the names of their team mates. In February, a Sky commentator accidentally referred to Frankfurt midfielder Sebastian Rode as “Rodic”.

The club reacted with a cheeky wink, tweeting a squad list in which all the players names' had been “Balkanised”, from goalkeeper “Kevin Trapp-ic” to French striker “Sebastien Haller-ic”.

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Jovic has been the shining star at the top of the triangle, scoring 25 goals in a breakthrough season at Frankfurt and catching the eye of some of Europe's top clubs.

Having arrived as an unknown quantity on loan two years ago from Benfica, Jovic is now one of Europe's most coveted strikers, with Serbia coach Mladen Krstajic comparing him to Barcelona's Luis Suarez.

Barcelona is one of several clubs, including Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Thursday's opponents Chelsea, who have been linked to Serbian star.

Yet Jovic, who Frankfurt coach Adi Huetter describes as a “goal machine” — especially after he scored five in one league game last October — has just signed a contract keeping him at Eintracht until 2023.

Croatian international Rebic also recently extended his contract to 2022, rebuffing interest from Bayern Munich.

The stocky attacking midfielder scored a brace against Bayern in Frankfurt's German Cup final triumph last season, just months before reaching the World Cup Final with Croatia.

The star man last year, he has been the unsung hero of Frankfurt's attack this season, with tenacious pressing and pinpoint through balls.

His ability to unlock a defence was on full display against Stuttgart last month, when he set up Kostic with a brilliant pass to notch up his fourth assist of the season.

The 3-0 win proved a special game for Serbian winger Kostic, who grabbed two goals against his old club.

After he was relegated with Stuttgart and Hamburg in recent years, many were surprised when Frankfurt decided to sign Kostic at the beginning of the season.

- 'Top drawer' -

Yet the Serbian is a player transformed under Huetter this season, proving deadly on the counter-attack with 12 assists and nine goals.

“When I arrived, the perception was that he was a bottom-drawer player, and I didn't understand it,” said Huetter in February. “Now he is in the top drawer.”

Kostic has since been linked with Inter Milan, and as with Rebic and Jovic, Frankfurt can hope to make a significant profit if and when it sells him.

For now, though, the focus is on Chelsea and a chance to make history. The last time the club made a European final, in 1980, Croatia and Serbia were still part of Yugoslavia.

Forty years on, the Balkan trio are out to write a new chapter for Frankfurt.

Huetter: Chelsea are our toughest opponents yet

Eintracht Frankfurt coach Adi Huetter has said that Thursday's semifinal first leg against Chelsea will be the toughest challenge yet on his team's epic Europa League journey this season.

Frankfurt has knocked out the likes of Marseille, Inter Milan, Shakhtar Donetsk and Benfica on its way to a first European semifinal in nearly 40 years, but Huetter said on Wednesday that Maurizio Sarri's Chelsea were a “class above” such opponents.

“They are favourites, there is no doubt about it,” said Huetter. “We need to do everything right, and play bravely and positively.”

Huetter, 49, claimed to be an admirer of Maurizio Sarri in an interview with kicker last year, and he said he was looking forward to his first meeting with the Italian.

The Frankfurt coach said he had a plan to deal with Chelsea, and identified Belgian star Eden Hazard as the biggest threat.

“We will have to try and play him out of the game, because he is one of the three best wingers in the world in my opinion,” said Huetter.

Yet he also warned that Chelsea was a “Champions League level team” who had quality all over the pitch.

“With players like David Luiz, Cesar Azpilicueta, Gonzalo Higuain, they have an unbelievable amount of experience,” he said. “We are the most inexperienced team in the semi-finals, but we deserve to be here nonetheless.”

“We are like Ajax in the Champions League, nobody expected us to be in the semi-finals ahead of the season,” said Huetter. “It has been a long, hard road to get here, and the fans have given us incredible support,” he said.

- 'We can beat anyone' -

Frankfurt's Serbian midfielder Mijat Gacinovic also said his team were underdogs, but could pull off a surprise on Thursday with the fans behind them.

“I watch a lot of Premier League football on TV and Chelsea are one of the best teams in the world for me,” he said. “But with our fans, we can beat anyone.”

Gacinovic, 24, is something of a cup specialist. He scored the decisive goal in Frankfurt's German Cup final win over Bayern Munich last season, and has notched up two goals and six assists in this season's Europa League campaign.

The Serbian is expected to start on Thursday, as Croatian attacking midfielder Ante Rebic is serving a one-game suspension.

Frankfurt is also without injured French striker Sebastien Haller, and having won none of its last three Bundesliga games, there are concerns that Huetter's side may be running out of steam.

“We have to be fresh and alert against an opponent like this,” said Gacinovic.

“The coach always says that everything is in your head, and if you are fresh up there, your body will be fresh too. We won't be tired tomorrow.”

Huetter said his team would have to “suffer” if it was to shock Chelsea in the first leg.

“They move unbelievably fast in both directions, so we will have to think quickly,” he said. “We need to suffer, to throw ourselves into tackles and to stay compact.”

Yet the Austrian said he was confident his team was mentally prepared, and backed it to pull off another European surprise on Thursday.

“We have always been brave in every game we have had so far, and we are convinced we can get through,” said Huetter.

“I don't think we need to do anything mentally. Against Chelsea, you don't need any extra motivation.”



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