The Bayern Munich manager is wary of the threat Chelsea pose, ahead of the Champions League final
Jupp Heynckes has just cracked another joke, the latest involving mock bewilderment that Arjen Robben would ever have considered leaving Bayern Munich for pastures new. "After all, we have the best doctor in the world on our medical staff," comes the punch line, the German playing up to an audience all too aware of the winger's fragility throughout his time at Chelsea, then roaring with laughter at his own wittiness. The guffaws only peter out as, still delighted with himself, he chuckles: "I'm a right sly fox, aren't I?"
That, more than a mischievous sense of humour, will be Chelsea's immediate concern. Awaiting them at the Allianz Arena on Saturday is a Bayern team overseen by a man who, after almost half a century in the professional game, has experienced virtually everything football can conjure.
As a player, Heynckes' haul included four Bundesliga titles and a Uefa Cup with Borussia Mönchengladbach, and a World Cup and European Championship with Germany. A nomadic managerial career has since taken in nine clubs in three countries, the pinnacle scaled in 1998 when he claimed Real Madrid's first European Cup for 32 years. This is a manager with pedigree.
A reunion with José Mourinho and Real in the Champions League final was supposed to represent Chelsea's worst nightmare. Instead, their season's defining fixture will be contested against one of the most respected coaches on the circuit who will send a team out on to their own patch.
Bayern, the second best team in the Bundesliga, should be considered favourites at home to the sixth best side in the Premier League, but Heynckes is wary of the threat that awaits. "I watched the first leg of their semi-final against Barcelona and wasn't that surprised Chelsea went through in the end," he says. "I knew of the history between the clubs, and that Barcelona always have a difficult time when they meet. And, in that final phase of the second leg, Barça were not this 'fresh force' we have come to know. They seemed knackered, and [Lionel] Messi was not himself. But that does not diminish Chelsea's performance. I have watched and coached in the Spanish League. I know how hard it is to beat Barcelona. And now I'm left to wonder if Barça can't beat Chelsea, how can we?
"They are a team on that same high level. If you look at their recent history in the European Cup, they have always progressed into the latter stages. They competed with Barcelona [in 2009], and were unfortunate on penalties against Manchester United [in 2008]. Perhaps this season, after their change of manager, the side has become closer together as a unit and are now playing completely as a team. Maybe they see this as their last chance together to try and win the Champions League: for Lampard, Drogba, Cech …
"They are strong, and I have been very impressed by the way Roberto Di Matteo acts beside the pitch. He is very relaxed and seems in control. That shows his team are close together, fighting towards one goal. The philosophy has changed recently. That is the psychological feeling he has achieved at the club."
Drawing praise from a manager of Heynckes' experience should leave Di Matteo, a relative novice of brief spells at Milton Keynes Dons, West Bromwich Albion and as Chelsea's interim first-team coach, brimming with pride. Only Otto Rehhagel has coached more games in the Bundesliga than Heynckes, with this his third spell in charge at Bayern. The first, from 1987-91, had yielded two league titles and, harshly, the sack just 12 months after he could not repeat that second success, a decision the club president Uli Hoeness claims still to regret.
At Real he ended the European Cup drought but was granted a solitary season, a fourth place finish with Barça a distant top prompting his dismissal regardless. Against Chelsea he confronts a team overseen by a stand-in manager whose own future beyond the expiry of a one-year contract at the end of next month would not be guaranteed even if he claims the London side's first Champions League.
Is Chelsea a job Heynckes would ever consider? "At my age? I don't think so." But Luiz Felipe Scolari took on the challenge at 62, even if he did only last eight months in the role. "And I am 67. But you wonder if it is the most difficult job in football? Have you heard of Real Madrid? I was there one year. Fabio Capello, one year. Guus Hiddink, one year [actually only seven months]. John Toshack, one year [nine months].
"When you become the manager of a leading club, there are so many situations you have to cope with. You have to deal with the people in charge of the club, the players, the media, the expectation … you have to deal with the whole environment around the club, and that is something you can find difficult. I know that. Even at Bayern it is a difficult situation sometimes. But you have to be totally emotionless about things. At Madrid, it went without saying that the coach would change. Every year they changed the manager. I even said publicly after six months I would not be staying for a second season, even if we won the Champions League. I knew I would not be there.
"That is the way it works sometimes, and you need your own principles. A manager can never accept somebody at the top influencing his decisions about the team. If that sort of thing ever happened, I would just have to stop. I could not accept it. I would never expect to have to explain my tactics to the club president, either. I have never done that – most of those I've worked under would not understand them, anyway. No, as a manager you have to have fun. You have to enjoy your work and be content. Satisfied. You have to have an atmosphere in which it is pleasant to work. Mourinho showed that you can do that very successfully at Chelsea. But you can only do it with time and patience. You have to have that time to develop a team."
Mourinho arguably remains the only Chelsea manager to have been permitted such a luxury under Roman Abramovich, whose lieutenant at Cobham, the sporting director Michael Emenalo, had regularly quizzed André Villas-Boas over the reasoning of selection and tactical approach. Heynckes will benefit from time at Bayern, even in the wake of Saturday's drubbing in the German Cup final to the league champions Borussia Dortmund, and will see out the final year of his contract at least, regardless of Saturday's result, bolstered as he is by an apparently healthy relationship with Hoeness and the chief executive, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. "We really get on," says Heynckes. "We can walk into a room together with three opinions but, when we leave, we only ever have one. Mine."
That, too, is accompanied by a bellow of laughter. The strength of that relationship might excuse what feels like a season of domestic under-achievement. Dortmund, who have now won their last five matches against Bayern, sprinted away with the league title with Saturday's cup win in Berlin rubbing salt into the wounds. Heynckes described some of Bayern's defending during that 5-2 reverse as "catastrophic". There have also been internal divisions this term, with Robben clashing with Philipp Lahm, Thomas Müller and, most publicly, Franck Ribéry, all of which has tested the manager's authority.
"But that sometimes happens in football," says Heynckes. "I played at the highest level, so I know what kind of things go through a player's mind and how he might behave, what patterns will crop up in the day-to-day routine. Nothing surprises me. I am in charge of one of the leading European teams, so I clearly know how to man-manage people. I'd hope I have a certain authority."
His team will be shocked by that loss in Berlin and eager to make amends. If there is vulnerability at the back, they can be impressively slick in attack, with slippery wingers and the prolific Mario Gómez as a focal point. Bayern's achievement in topping their Champions League group – above Napoli and Manchester City – and then overcoming Basel, Marseille and, most impressively, Real in the knock-out stages was worthy of merit. What frustration there has been this term has been reserved for the domestic campaign: Bayern may have finished as runners-up, but that feels inadequate. "And yet we still ended up with three points more than when we won the title in 2010," adds the manager. "Our only problem has been that Borussia Dortmund have had such a fantastic season. We had a slack time after the winter break and it was gone."
Domestic league and cup near-misses have placed more emphasis on claiming the club's fifth European Cup, in the process making amends for the disappointment of losing out to Internazionale in the final of this competition in 2010. For all his gushing compliments, the sly fox in Heynckes is plotting a route to redemption, and Chelsea will hardly appreciate the funny side should he succeed.