Robben can put past failures to bed with Champions League triumph
One World Cup, two Champions Leagues, one German Cup against Dortmund. Arjen Robben has suffered so many high-profile defeats in finals over the last three years that it's easy to forget that he can actually win the odd crunch match, too.
In fact, the Dutch winger returns to the Champions League showdown at Wembley Stadium on Saturday as the only Bayern Munich player with experience of a final success in England's national stadium. In 2007, he lifted the first ever FA Cup final in the new Wembley with Chelsea (1-0 over Manchester United), but as ever with Robben, it wasn't a straightforward occasion that day. He had come on as a 45th-minute substitute, only to hobble off again in extra time. A couple months later, he signed for Real Madrid. His relationship with José Mourinho, who used to insist that Robben played even when he wasn't fully fit, had broken down completely.
Last season, Robben, 29, was the figurehead of Bayern's misery and failures. In the league, he missed a penalty in the 1-0 defeat at Dortmund that effectively sealed the championship for Jürgen Klopp's side. The abiding image of that night at the Signal Iduna Park was Dortmund defender Neven Subotic triumphantly screaming in the face of Robben after his miss -- Subotic believed he had dived to win the spot kick -- with none of the Bayern midfielder's teammates coming in to support him.
Robben redeemed himself to an extent when he converted his penalty in the Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid, but then he saw his tame extra-time effort against Chelsea in the Allianz Arena final saved by Petr Cech.
"He's capped his blackest year," wrote Focus after the defeat by the Londoners. But it got worse, still. A couple of days later, sections of the crowd in the Allianz Arena booed him during a friendly against the Dutch national team. The game was only staged to compensate Bayern for the six-month-injury loss of Robben after the 2010 World Cup.
"To be honest, I don't feel like talking about these stupid things anymore, they don't matter," Robben said at Bayern's media day last week when queried about his annus horribilis.
It was the one occasion a member of the Bavarian's squad looked a little uncomfortable in what was otherwise a very relaxed and even jovial atmosphere. Thomas Müller spoke of the need to avoid "the loser tag" that would inevitably come with a third Champions League final loss in four years, but it was Robben who was put under the most pressure by the journalists. They also singled him out for speculation about a move away from Munich in the summer.
"I have two more years here, why should I go?" Robben replied, but he was careful to add that he was "only concentrating on the current season."
None of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm and Müller were asked about about the possibility of a departure, of course, because the very thought of any of them leaving was inconceivable. Not so with Robben. Since Pep Guardiola was announced as Jupp Heynckes' successor in January, it's been widely assumed that the Dutchman would be the first to make way for the Pep revolution. "Too egotistical," "not a team player," "a negative influence in the dressing room," it said on the charge sheet. And where would he even play after Mario Götze's arrival from Dortmund?
There has not been any official pronouncement from Guardiola on this matter, only second-hand and somewhat contradictory information. One Spanish newspaper reported that the Catalan coach had in fact "big plans" for Robben and hinted at a future central role for the player, but that was before Götze was lured to the Allianz Arena.
The Bayern board has tried to cool speculation in recent weeks.
"We are very happy with him, his departure is not on the agenda," CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said.
You wouldn't really expect Rummenigge to say anything else, not at this delicate stage of the season. In any case, the player's transfer value would be adversely affected if Bayern was to be seen as willing sellers. But seasoned observers at Säbenerstrasse have actually detected signs that the man from Bedum (in the northeastern Netherlands) might yet see out a contract for the first time in his checkered career.
Robben still cuts a pretty self-centred figure. He often continues to practice obsessively when everyone else is back in the changing room and cultivates the image of a lone wolf. But his mood has improved remarkable in recent weeks, along with his performances. Ever since Toni Kroos picked up an injury in the Champions League quarterfinal against Juventus at the beginning of April, Robben has not only been a regular starter but also often the most effective attacker of the side.
His two goals against Barcelona were vintage Robben, both in the predictable manner of their execution -- he cut inside from the right onto his left foot and curled the ball inside the second post -- and their sheer individualistic brilliance. The Bayern supporters were singing his name after the 4-0 win in the first leg, for the first time in many months. Add his decisive goal in a 1-0 win against Dortmund in DFB Cup quarterfinal -- another Robben special -- and it becomes clear that he's had a very good second half of the season, as is so often the case.
"The (Bayern) masseur told me I should only start in November or December, then I wouldn't have any problems," Robben joked last week.
He's never been truly unpopular with the regular Bayern fans, but his aloof manner hasn't made him a crowd favorite, either. Things look they could change, however.
"The irritant has become a loved player," wrote Munich tabloid Abendzeitung, with only a hint of hyperbole. Whisper it: his tracking back has been exemplary, and against Barcelona, it was noticeable that he was willing to pass the ball more often.
All that is left for him to reach bona fide hero status -- and to ditch a slightly unfair reputation as a big time choker -- is a win at Wembley. As favorites, Bayern will feel more pressure, and no more will feel it more than Robben -- or so you would think. But he didn't appear fazed in the slightest when he addressed reporters Tuesday.
"It's just not an issue for me," he said, with a relaxed smile. "There are good and bad experiences in football. Yes, I missed a penalty last season (in the final) but so what? These things happen. I don't feel like I have to prove myself. Does it make a difference that it's Dortmund? Not to me. I don't really care who the opponents are."
These lines were all delivered matter-of-factly, with genuine self-belief rather than arrogance -- which is often little more than doubt, camouflaged. The message was: Arjen Robben is ready, the past has no bearing. Instead, he said, former coach Louis van Gaal had taught him to visualize positive thoughts ahead of important games. Honorary Bayern president Franz Beckenbauer was at it, too, this week.
"I'm hoping for a 3-3 after extra time, with Robben scoring the decisive penalty in the shootout", der Kaiser told Müncher Merkur on Tuesday. Confronted with this vision, Robben barely reacted, as if none of it was his concern. "Sounds good to me," he shrugged.