"I expect top performances from him."
When James Rodriguez steps onto the football field, it is expected that he will be a gamechanger. Not just by fans, but by coaches and managers as well. Niko Kovac confirmed last week that the Colombia international was fit to return for Bayern Munich after missing eight games with a knee problem, but included the disclaimer that he wanted Rodriguez to show no signs of rustiness.
"I know he's a top player, I know what he can do," Kovac told reporters. "He's shown that not just here but at other big clubs. I expect top performances from him, just like I do any other player. We finished the first half of the season strongly, and competition for places is fierce, as is always the case. Now it's down to him to show he deserves a place in the team again."
Rodriguez has found game time harder to come by under new Bayern boss Kovac, having been a huge success under Jupp Heynckes in his first season in Munich. Last season, he finished with eight goals and 14 assists in 39 games in all competitions, but has found himself being left out of the starting XI more often in 2018-19.
As a result, the 27 year old has been the focus of many transfer rumours throughout the season, with talk of a January loan to Arsenal even cropping up in recent weeks. Reports in Spain have long insisted that Rodriguez is unhappy with his role in Munich, while he is said to have told Kovac "We are not in Frankfurt" following a disappointing draw against Ajax.
However, everything Rodriguez has said in public has indicated that he has no problems with either Munich or the coach. He admitted that the only thing on his mind was returning to full fitness and getting back on the pitch.
"There are no issues with the coach or any staff,” James told reporters in December. “At the moment I am with Bayern and I have a contract with the club until June and I am happy here, I am calm and in the future we will see what happens. I am only thinking about Bayern, I am recovering well from my injury and I have lots of motivation to return better than ever."
His return to action on Friday was a 12-minute cameo against Hoffenheim, where he had little time on the pitch but still put in a display worthy of being called a "top performance". With Hoffenheim pushing for a late equaliser, Bayern secured a 3-1 win as Rodriguez played a perfect pass to Thomas Muller, who had all the time to cross for Robert Lewandowski to score from close range. While it did not count as an assist for the Colombian, who has provided the final ball for just two goals in 12 games in 2018-19, the goal was purely Rodriguez's creation. His vision picked out Muller, who was able to break through the defence and find Lewandowski.
It also showed that Rodriguez should not simply be seen as a backup option for Muller, but can also play alongside the World Cup winner in a dynamic attack. Until now, Muller or Rodriguez was an either/or option for Kovac, but the brief cameo last weekend proves that the duo can work together in support of Lewandowski, and combine to great effect.
Muller is suspended for both of Bayern's games against Liverpool in the Champions League, with the first leg taking place on February 19, almost three weeks after the end of the transfer window. They will need Rodriguez for these matches if they are to stand any chance of progressing to the quarter-finals of the tournament, while it has now become an annual tradition for Bayern to have an injury crisis in the latter stage of the season. Usually, this is not a huge problem domestically, but 2018-19 has not been as easy as usual for the Bavarians on home soil and they find themselves chasing Borussia Dortmund after half the season.
Success is expected in Munich, with the Bundesliga title almost an afterthought in recent years as they chase the Champions League. Kovac's best chance of being successful this season - and keeping his job - is with Rodriguez, who can help create the goals to propel them to the title and onwards in Europe. Letting him leave now would be madness.