McClaren's next mission: to make a mark in Munich

The Bundesliga's first English manager makes his debut tonight against the champions. Is he daunted? Far from it
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The Independent Online

For some he will always be "the wally with the brolly" but Steve McClaren's rehabilitation takes on an impressive new dimension tonight as he becomes the first Englishman to coach in the German Bundesliga.

McClaren's first match could not be more daunting. His new club, Wolfsburg, are away to Bayern Munich, last season's domestic double-winners and Champions League finalists. The cameras will be upon him as he enters the dug-out at the Allianz Arena for the fixture is the televised opener to the Bundesliga season.

McClaren, who has rarely lacked self-belief, will not be overawed, not by the man on the home bench, Louis van Gaal, with whom he jousted while coaching in the Netherlands, by Bayern or by the Bundesliga.

"I am very much looking forward to the match," said McClaren this week. "Games like this are the reason you enjoy doing the job so much."

Three years ago McClaren did not seem to be enjoying his profession so much as he presided over England's failure to reach Euro 2008, but he has since re-invented himself on the Continent with a highly successful two-year spell at Twente Enschede. This, though, is another step up. Wolfsburg were Bundesliga champions themselves two seasons ago and expectations are high, as his short-lived predecessor Armin Veh found out. McClaren is doing his best to downplay his own position, and the task that awaits him in Bavaria tonight.

"I'm proud to be the first English trainer in the Bundesliga but it's not about me," he said, "it's just about VfL Wolfsburg. We need to concentrate on the game. All of the paraphernalia surrounding the match is totally irrelevant.

"Bayern have an exceptional squad with several world-class players. We respect the team and the trainer, but naturally we are concentrating less on the opponent and more on ourselves. It will take some time before I have the team exactly where I want them, we need to be patient, but we worked hard in pre-season and this game will be a real indicator of where we are. We couldn't have a better start."

While Bayern provided the core of Germany's World Cup semi-finalists (Philipp Lahm, Thomas Müller, Miroslav Klose and Bastian Schweinsteiger being among their eight representatives) Wolfsburg did not have a single player in Joachim Löw's squad. That has been partially remedied with the signing of Arne Friedrich from relegated Hertha Berlin but there is also plenty of non-German talent in McClaren's side.

The £12m acquisition of young Dane Simon Kjaer should strengthen a defence that shipped too many goals last term despite the presence between the sticks of Diego Benaglio, the Swiss who kept a clean sheet against Spain in the World Cup. In attack Wolfsburg have, so far, retained the sought-after Bosnian Edin Dzeko, who formed such a strong partnership in the title-winning season with Brazil's Grafite.

The midfield includes Karim Ziani, who played so well against England for Algeria, while there is an intriguing new recruit in Nassim Ben Khalifa, a teenager of Tunisian descent who is regarded as the best young player to come out of Switzerland in years.

So there is plenty for McClaren and his coach, the former German World Cup winner Pierre Littbarski to work with (one of the impressive aspects of McClaren's "exile" is his willingness to operate with whichever local coaches are in place).

Wolfsburg, wholly owned by the Volkwagen car company, have gone from being an also-ran to one of Germany's leading teams in little over a decade. The club played in regional leagues until 1992 when it reached Bundesliga 2, climbing into the top flight five years later. They established themselves under the appropriately named coach Wolfgang Wolf but it is Felix Magath whom McClaren has to emulate. A European Cup winner with Hamburg as a player, Magath twice coached Bayern Munich to the Double before steering Wolfsburg to their first Bundesliga title in 2009.

It is a tough act to follow: certainly Veh failed to do so last season, being sacked midway through the campaign. McClaren, however, faced a similar situation at Twente Enschede, who were experiencing their best period for a quarter century when McClaren took over. He managed to take them a step further and win the Eredivisie for the first time.

McClaren's first aim this season is to achieve a Champions League place. His main rivals are this year's qualifiers, Bayern, Schalke 04 (now coached by Magath) and Werder Bremen, plus Bayer Leverkusen, who faded after a bright start last season but have Michael Ballack back in the ranks, Christian Gross' Stuttgart and Hamburg (Veh's current club). With the domestic scene relatively open (three different Bundesliga winners in three years), the national team vibrant, and the highest gates in Europe, there are few better places to be involved in football. Anyone who thinks McClaren is desperate to return to the Premier League is almost certainly misguided.

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