Kovac: Madrid strong without Ronaldo, Messi is the best
Bayern Munich boss Niko Kovac expects Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to challenge for the Champions League but favours the Barca man.
Niko Kovac is relishing his Champions League debut as Bayern Munich boss in a competition where he expects the usual suspects to hold sway.
Bayern are away to Benfica on Wednesday and former Croatia boss Kovac acknowledges expectations are typically high for the Bundesliga champions.
"I look forward to it. Every single player, club and coach wants to be there," he told Goal, with Ajax and AEK still to come in Group E.
"The expectation in Munich is always high, but I also have this expectation of myself and my players. I was aware of that when I signed with Bayern. The group we've been allocated is very attractive and not easy."
Real Madrid begin their pursuit of a fourth consecutive European title at home to Roma without Cristiano Ronaldo, whose decorated association with the competition continues as Juventus take on Valencia.
"That Real has won the title three times in a row is unique. I do not think that will happen again in the near future," Kovac said.
"Real has changed without Cristiano Ronaldo but is still a very good team. It's great to win the Champions League three times, but it's also important to remember that they only won the Spanish championship once in the three years.
"This shows that it is very difficult to do well in all three competitions. But I am convinced that Real will play a very good role again this year."
Kovac believes the financial power of Europe's heavyweight clubs dictates they will again be in the battle for honours.
"You have already mentioned the usual suspects: for me, these are the Spanish representatives Atletico Madrid and FC Barcelona. The English are always good," he said, with Liverpool having secured a dramatic 3-2 win over Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday.
"PSG and Juventus are favourites too. It is difficult for smaller teams to progress beyond the last 16. The big clubs have a lot more money, the stars in their ranks and a higher quality.
"In one game you can overcome the collective, but in two games the quality usually prevails. That's why I think the bigger teams will eventually reach the quarter-finals."
Lionel Messi was typically brilliant as Barcelona launched their campaign with a 4-0 win over PSV, netting a hat-trick.
Despite recent UEFA and FIFA awards nominations snubs, Kovac believes the Argentinian superstar still sets the standard in the world game.
"For me, Lionel Messi is the best," he added. "It used to be that way, and it will continue to be so in the future.
"Ronaldo is also a world-class player. His style impresses me. This is not innate, but trained. You have a lot of players with natural talent, but you have to develop your own talent.
"That's what Ronaldo did in a fantastic way. Mohamed Salah and Luka Modric were also great last year.
"The further back you play, the less you get into the limelight. But individual class ultimately decides the games."