Arjen Robben’s virtuoso performance for Bayern Munich against Barcelona in the Champions League last week could be his last for the Bavarians at the Allianz Arena.
The Dutchman doesn’t fit into the plans of incoming coach Pep Guardiola and is set to end a four-year stint in Munich that began with trophies but will be remembered for on-pitch fights with team-mates, injuries and missed penalties that cost the club dear.
The 29-year-old’s fine individual effort in the 4-0 first leg semi-final win against Barcelona showed just what the talented Robben is still capable of.
A brilliant dribbler, Robben is blessed with a near unparalleled first touch – and ego.
But the chances of Robben still being at Bayern Munich in September are as great as the Dutchman offering one of his team-mates the chance to take a penalty in a big match.
"I have a contract until 2015 but I wouldn’t close the door on anything," Robben said recently. Galatasaray, Inter Milan and Tottenham have been touted as possible destinations.
The emergence of Thomas Mueller and Toni Kroos has marginalised Robben, who is only back in the first team because of the latter’s injury.
Next season, Kroos is back. Bayern have already agreed to buy Germany’s outstanding young talent Mario Goetze for €37 million. And Guardiola is known to be a fan of summer buy Xherdan Shaqiri.
Yet it all started so well. Following a €25 million transfer from Real Madrid in 2009, the club’s new number 10 made his debut as a substitute against Wolfsburg on a bright August evening, banging in two smart goals in a 3-0 victory.
And what a first season it was in Bavaria: under fellow Dutchman Louis van Gaal, the free-scoring Robben led Bayern to the German league and cup double, netting 16 goals in 24 league matches, and was crowned 2009-10 Bundesliga player of the season.
Robben seemed a class apart in the Bundesliga: time after time, he would cut in from the right, skin a bemused defender or two before firing home with his left foot.
At that stage in his career, Robben seemed to be a lucky charm.
This was the man who had won the Dutch Eredivisie with PSV in 2003, the Premier League with Chelsea in 2005 and 2006 and La Liga with Real Madrid in 2008.
Holding championship trophies aloft seemed to come easy: has any other footballer won five league titles, in four different countries, in the space of eight seasons?
There was plenty of cup success too, with Robben winning the FA Cup once and League Cup twice under Jose Mourinho in England. In 2010, Robben converted a penalty as Bayern routed Werder Bremen 4-0 in the German Cup final. But that spot kick seemed to mark the turning point in his career: from being a winner, Robben turned into football’s nearly man.
First, there was the 2010 Champions League final against Inter Milan back on his former turf at the Bernabeau, where Robben cut a jaded figure in a 2-0 defeat. His stunning quarter-final goal that knocked out Manchester United that season was quickly forgotten.
Worse was to come months later at the World Cup final in Johannesburg. Legendary status beckoned when Robben was one-on-one against Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas in the second half, but the Bayern winger spurned the chance and ever since has been blamed by his countrymen for wasting the Netherlands’ best ever chance of winning a World Cup.
The next season Bayern missed out on the Bundesliga title and last season some wondered if Robben was becoming a liability.
During a match in Bremen, a frustrated Robben punched Mueller after a counterattack broke down. Robben has never been one to endear himself to team-mates and his explanation of the Bremen incident hardly helped : "I shouldn't have acted like that on the pitch, I should have done it in the dressing room."
As Mueller’s stock has risen, so has Robben’s embarrassment over the affair. Last season another Champions League final was lost, with Robben missing an extra-time penalty that would surely have won the final in Munich against Chelsea.
Earlier that month, Robben did score a penalty but was on the losing side as Borussia Dortmund crushed Bayern 5-2 in the German cup final. Weeks earlier, Robben had missed a critical penalty at Dortmund in a Bundesliga six-pointer that was won by Juergen Klopp’s men.
It can’t be forgotten that Robben has been badly hampered by injuries since his 2010 high point.
But Bayern knew they were taking a risk on the player when he arrived.
Most Bundesliga players are formally placed on an injury list after one month on the sidelines, after which they are paid the princely sum of €183 a day in lieu of their megabucks wages. The Dutchmen’s advisers insisted on what is known as the "Robben Clause" which stipulates that the player receives full pay for three months when injured. That proved to be a master stroke for Robben, who has been restricted to 76 Bundesliga appearances over four seasons (albeit with an outstanding strike rate of 44 goals).
Even when he is playing, Robben has few ties to the dressing room. When Bayern celebrated clinching the title on the pitch at Eintracht Frankfurt, Robben was nowhere to be seen. German TV has even observed that his wife Bernadien never sits among the other Bayern WAGs in the VIP box at the Allianz Arena. Robben was rested for Bayern’s home match at the weekend, signalling a likely start for Wednesday’s second leg at the Nou Camp. A Champions League final beckons: what a rich irony it would be if Robben ends his Bayern career with another penalty kick.
Andreas Evagora, Deputy Head Eurosport 2