Rewind. What A Difference A Year Makes: Robben’s Redemption

Time to take a rummage in the archives now, with a piece from my now closed Fussballchef blog. Following the Champions League final in Munich in 2012, one of the most broken men on the pitch was Arjen Robben. The following year at Wembley, the story could not have been any more different.

Take yourself back to the Allianz Arena in Munich late on the evening of 19th May 2012. There, you would have seen a dejected and forlorn figure wearing the red number ten shirt. With his head buried in his hands. In front of a stunned crowd, FC Bayern München had contrived to lose the Champions League final on their own turf against Chelsea. The team were in a state of shock, and the man in the number ten shirt just wanted the ground to swallow him up.

Just three days after that bitter and heartbreaking defeat, the same player was then roundly jeered by his own team’s supporters during a friendly match at the Allianz Arena.

Unloved and unwanted, it looked as if Arjen Robben was going to be looking for a new club at the start of the 2012-13 season.

Roll forward a year, to the late evening of 25th May 2013. The same man. The same number ten shirt. A completely different world. Football is a game that at times can be so cruel, but the counterpoint is that is can be so wonderful as well.

Finale dahoam

When Bayern faced Chelsea in the 2012 Champions League final, they had been looking at securing a trophy double. The Bundesliga title had already gone west to rivals Borussia Dortmund, but there was hope that Die Roten would take home at least one of the cup trophies: the one known as “Old Big Ears”. The Henkelpott.

On familiar ground at the Allianz Arena against a Chelsea side that had clawed and scraped its way into the showpiece event, Bayern would start the match as massive favourites. The first half saw the Bavarians on top, but no goal came to give Bayern’s aching supporters the relief they craved. The second half was much the same, with the red shirts rampant and their opponents unable to even win a corner at the other end.

Finally, in the eighty-third minute, a roar could be heard across all of Munich as local hero Thomas Müller stole in at the far post to nod a header down and past Chelsea ‘keeper Petr Čech. It looked as if the waiting was finally over. Eleven years after their last Champions League victory in Milan, the famous jug-eared trophy was coming “Hoam” to Munich.

Sadly, it was not to be. Müller was substituted and coach Jupp Heynckes adjusted the lineup to defend his team’s slender advantage. This simply allowed Chelsea to chase the game, and have what was their most successful period inside the Bayern half.

With two minutes left on the clock, the Blues won their first corner out on the right, and their was almost an inevitability about the whole scene. Ivorian striker Didier Drogba rose above the red shirted defence, powering a header into the roof of the net past the hitherto untested Manuel Neuer.

Penalty drama

From nowhere, Chelsea had managed to breach the red defence and had taken the game into extra time. Yet somehow, Bayern picked themselves up, regrouped, and started again. Just three minutes into the additional half an hour, the nippy Franck Ribéry was upended in the box – and Portuguese referee Pedro Proença pointed to the spot.

The drama twisted and turned yet again. Most Bayern fans would have looked to midfield stalwart Bastian Schweinsteiger to step up to take the kick, but there was no sign of him. This was a man who had taken penalties for the national side, and who had netted the crucial winning Elfmeter in the semi-final shootout victory against Real Madrid. Then there was Mario Gómez, a decent enough penalty taker, but at the same time rather shaky and unpredictable.

The man who eventually stepped up was Robben, a player seen even by his own fans as egotistical, lazy, and something of a prima donna. A naturally gifted but selfish player who would choose to make a run down the right and cut inside, eschewing the easy pass to a team-mate in open space only to launch the ball skyward into Row Z.

Cue a collective scratching of heads. Was this a coaching decision? Was Robben the only player who was brave enough to step up? We will never know.

Footballing purgatory

Just weeks earlier, Bayern were playing Dortmund in what had been seen as a make-or-break Bundesliga fixture at the Westfalenstadion. A Dortmund win would more or less settle matters in favour of Die Borussen, but a win for the Bavarians or even a draw would continue to keep things interesting. Trailing by a single goal with just four minutes left on the clock, Bayern won a last-ditch penalty, which Robben rolled into the grateful arms of BVB ‘keeper Roman Weidenfeller.

The defeat would put Die Roten six points behind their rivals with just four games remaining. A month later, here he was again. This time, in Europe’s biggest footballing showpiece against the formidable Čech in his trademark protective headgear. Surely it couldn’t happen again?

Fate had not smiled on Bayern that night. For all their dominance, they never managed to make that crucial leap. Robben’s kick was weak, and Čech did the rest. It was almost a carbon copy of his kick against Dortmund. In a flash, the chance had gone.

The game meandered to the inevitable Elfmeterschießen. Robben, his nerves now shot to pieces, was not even among the five players selected to take a spot-kick, which included ‘keeper Neuer. After a successful opening three kicks, Croatian Ivica Olić and then the hitherto reliable Schweinsteiger both failed to add to Bayern’s tally. It was then left to Drogba, who rolled the ball smartly past Neuer to spoil the home side’s party.

It was hard to stomach. Just like that, every FC Bayern fan had been plunged into the darkness of footballing purgatory.

Schweinsteiger had missed the crucial kick in the shootout, but the chagrin of the Bayern fans was reserved for the man whom in their eyes should have decided things long before then: Arjen Robben.

Fringe player

Bayern had ended the season with nothing to show for it, and the Dutchman was seen by a number of fans and followers as the perfect scapegoat. He might have delivered spectacular goals, but for some he was just too much of a liability. He had to go.

The 2012-13 season had begun with Robben on the sidelines, with youngster Toni Kroos given a permanent berth in Bayern’s powerful and highly talented midfield. New signings had been made, and the new defensive midfield partnership of Schweinsteiger and Spanish international Javi Martínez supported an attacking trio consisting of Ribéry, Kroos and Müller.

There was no place for Robben, whose appearances now ranged from the fleeting to the meaningless, ten-minute walk-ons through in games that hardly mattered. The player often showed his indignation, but nobody wanted to know. Die Roten were destroying everything in their path, and the fact that the mercurial and highly sensitive Dutchman was now consigned to the bench made little difference to many of those in the Südkurve. Kroos was the main man now.

Energy and urgency

As is usually the case in any footballing fairytale, however, things would once again be decided by a cruel twist of fate. Cruel this time for Kroos, who in the opening minutes of the Champions League quarter-final first leg against Juventus was forced off the field through injury.

On came Robben, who from his first touch of the ball looked like a different man. Yes, there was the odd dive. Yes, there were the distinctive cuts inside followed by the sight of the ball ballooning over the crossbar and high into the crowd. But this was a different Robben. A serious Robben. A hungry Robben, who felt he had something to offer the team, and moreover something to prove.

Bayern would completely dominate the Italian champions to register a 2-0 win at the Allianz, and for many Robben had been the man of the match. His arrival had injected an energy and urgency into Bayern’s play, an energy that had been the crucial difference between the two sides.

With Kroos ruled out for the rest of the season, the chance had come for Robben to show what all the fuss was about – not just for his detractors among the Bayern faithful, but to himself. Here was a man who been a finalist for both club and country, and had nothing to show for it; one will always remain unsure how things came about, but something finally clicked inside his head. Robben seemed to realise that to relieve himself of this unwanted “loser” tag, he had to do more than just be himself.

One last opportunity

In what was the final piece of Heynckes’ Bayern jigsaw, both Robben and Ribéry – the wing partnership known collectively as “Robbéry” – were dramatically transformed into team players. The petulance levels were wound down, the selfishness was transformed into a willingness to win back the lost ball and help out the defence, and that hit and hope effort was re-purposed into a smart pass back or inside.

In defeating 2011 champions and perennial favourites Barcelona 7:0 on aggregate in their Champions League semi-final, Bayern had demolished one of the greatest sides in the modern game with ease of a cat nonchalantly swatting a moth. Robben played a crucial part in both games, providing a neat finish in the first leg and scoring a trademark left-footed curler in the second, which effectively killed off the tie as a contest.

He was back, but not quite there yet.

Heyckes’ side were through to their third Champions’ League final in four years, and the time had come for them to finally win that fifth title. For Arjen Robben, it was surely his final chance for redemption in an FC Bayern Trikot. Had fate taken another turn, he may not have even been in the starting lineup.

When the teams exited the tunnel at Wembley, there was one last opportunity to exorcise the demons of 2012.

Wembley night

Bayern’s opponents were none other than Bundesliga rivals Borussia Dortmund, but this time the omens were good for both Bayern and Robben. The Bavarians were unbeaten in their last four matches against Jürgen Klopp’s much-praised and highly fashionable outfit, including a win in the DFB-Pokal quarter-final – a tight encounter that was ultimately settled by a delicious long-range effort from the Dutch international.

In front of an 80,000 plus crowd at Wembley, the team from the Ruhrgebiet began brightly. But as the game went on, Bayern gradually started to assert themselves. Robben was right in the thick of the action. Having collected a neat pass down the left from Ribéry, it was the Dutchman who would set up Croatian striker Mario Mandžukić for the opener.

All looked set fair for Bayern, until big-haired Brazilian centre-back Dante clumsily upended the sprightly Marco Reus in the box. There was no argument about the resulting penalty, which İlkay Gündoğan tucked away elegantly. As Dortmund made the most of an unexpected second wind, it looked as though it was going to be another one of those European final nights. Those long and horrible nights that had become all too familiar for fans of FC Bayern.

Twisting turns of fate

Chances came and went, particularly for Robben. The first half had seen him foiled twice by Roman Weidenfeller – the second shot hitting the Dortmund ‘keeper square in the face. In what was an agonising moment just minutes after Dortmund’s equaliser, Robben charged towards a teasing Müller cross, only to be beaten at the left post by a sliding Neven Subotić.

The Serb’s challenge was perfectly timed and wonderfully executed. Robben could not have done any better. But questions were still being asked of the Dutchman. Could he have chased harder? Should he have committed himself and lunged with more purpose towards the ball? His critics were shouting louder than ever.

While watching the match from a hotel lobby some 150 kilometres south of Barcelona – oh, the irony of it all – I received a message on Facebook from a fellow supporter. Not one of Robben’s biggest fans, he demanded that Jupp Heynckes get the “pansy ass Dutchman” off the field.

I didn’t hesitate in responding almost immediately. “Fate has decided that he will score the winner. It just has to be.”

I am not a massive believer in omens nor the twisting turns of fate, but I believed in Arjen Robben. I believed that he had something, if just one more thing, to give.

Demons put to flight

With a minute of normal time left on the clock, a backheeled pass from Franck Ribéry somehow threaded its way through a mass of yellow and black shirts. There to collect it was the inevitable Robben, who daintily skipped over the outstretched leg of Mats Hummels. Having evaded a badly mistimed lunge by Subotić, the only remaining obstacle was the imposing Weidenfeller.

Robben had less than a second to make his decision. For those of us watching, it felt like an eternity. Would he play it against the ‘keeper, or scuff the chance entirely? Would he try and have a go with his less-favoured right foot? All of the possible scenarios were flashing past as the bald-headed Dutchman set himself up for the shot.

Finally, it came. A slightly scuffed finish with the inside of his left foot. The ball, rolled past the prostrate Weidenfeller and into the bottom right hand corner of the net. Bayern were back in front, and there was no way back for Dortmund now. The lessons of 2012 had surely been learned. The demons had been put to flight.

Redemption

As Robben charged away in celebration with his team mates in tow, the relief was palpable. In that moment, all of the pain had been swept away. That intoxicating mix of relief and pure elation was etched upon the Dutchman’s face.

When the final whistle blew to signal the end of the match and Bayern’s fifth European Cup title, the tears started to flow. One of the most lachrimose was Robben.

Just a year earlier, Robben had been the butt of every criticism. Not just by Bayern fans, but also the likes of Franz Beckenbauer. He had been involved in on-field arguments with Thomas Müller, and had even felt the force of Franck Ribéry’s fist in the dressing room. What a difference a year would make.

No longer a “loser” or a “choker”, Arjen Robben had finally found redemption. One could not have written the script any better.