Sir Alex Ferguson dispensed with the usual diplomacies about the breadth of threats facing his Manchester United side in Munich tonight. "Robben and Ribéry are the ones who have been carrying the banner for Bayern," he said at the end of last week. "They have been behind in games so many times and one of those two has always rescued them, so they are obviously the players to watch."
"Rib and Rob", the Germans call that lethal combination of left- and right-winger. And with Arjen Robben likely to be missing, the mantle falls upon the speed and agility of his team-mate this evening. Franck Ribéry – or "Ferraribery" as he was known during his hugely successful period at Galatasaray – is hardly in perfect shape either, as he struggles with an ongoing ankle injury. But even 45 minutes of the Frenchman can be enough to turn any tie.
Ribéry is a throwback to the kind of winger that the Scottish nation valued richly in the days when Ferguson was growing up on the banks of the Clyde: small, wiry, fleet of foot and with an utter lack of pretension born of a tough childhood. For the tenement blocks of Glasgow, read a sink estate in Boulogne-sur-Mer. There is even the facial scarring which goes with the turbulent early years, the result of a road accident in his parents' car when he was two years old which tore his cheeks and forehead to ribbons. They also called him "Scarface" in Istanbul.
For a fair few years, this formative life moulded an individual who, when he arrived on the world stage as a player, didn't care to think too much – and flourished because of it. "On the pitch, he has all the problems worked out while others are still pondering," said Jean-Luc Vandamme, who spotted him as a 13-year-old and brought him from the notorious Chemin-Vert estate on the edge of Boulogne to Lille's youth academy. "People think that he's thick but that's pure stupidity. He's anything but. He has a practical intelligence, like all the great players, and great anticipation. He analyses three times faster than others."
That was three years ago, after Ribéry – who had zigzagged through French football, from Lille back to Boulogne, then to Alès, Brest and then Metz before heading out to Turkey and back for two memorable years in Marseilles – finally seemed to have found his milieu in Munich. Goals flowed there from a player who quickly established himself as the life and soul of the dressing room. He is remembered for having a go at driving the Bayern team coach during one pre-season tour and also took to the wheel of one of the groundsmen's tractors after the side won the Bundesliga title, the season before last.
Now it is a different story. Though Ribéry excelled in Germany for a season, on both wings and as a striker, he now seems to yearn so much for a move to Spain that he is detached from the club, the city and all that goes with it. The Bernabeu has seemed to be calling him for the past two summers, but never more than last July when with Zinadine Zidane – his great friend and confidant, who took him under his wing when he was first called up to the national side – assured him a place in the Spanish capital would be his.
The two men also share an agent but the move never happened – a result of Munich's determination to command a premium figure for him and their reluctance to see him go – and the consequences have been plain to see. Ribéry has been in and out of Louis van Gaal's side this season, injured more than playing and only occasionally displaying the skill which encouraged Chelsea to make a £43.7m bid for his services last summer. A player who wants to be somewhere else. A mere 13 appearances and three goals this season tell the story but so does the sense of disgruntlement which has spilt over into his international career.
The France coach, Raymond Domenech, has attempted to deploy Ribéry down France's right, to keep the left wing free for Thierry Henry. Ribéry is the nation's best left-winger, Domenech admits, but the left is the only place for Henry in the twilight of his international days before an expected retirement after this summer's World Cup. The explanations have not gone down well with Ribéry. In the World Cup qualifier against Romania in October, he abandoned the right flank posting he had been assigned and wandered over to Henry's wing. His team-mate told him, in colourful language, to get back to his work station but Ribéry decided to play wherever on the pitch it pleased him. France could only manage a desultory draw. Domenech travelled to Munich to speak to him before his next game, against Spain last month after a period out injured, and perhaps felt the message was through. Ribery wandered once again.
There is a feeling in France that Ribéry's conduct is the product of his despair to be out of Munich. There was surprise when his career took him to the German city in 2007 when the sum being offered – €25m – was generous. The suspicion has always been that Ribéry – not an educated man – was not actually too sure where on the European map he was going, other than a place he associated with Karl-Heinz Rumenige and Franz Beckenbauer.
His achievements in the Bundesliga have been diluted by the fact that the German league, for all its greater financial probity and accessibility for fans, does not present the level of opposition of other leagues. Brazilian players, such as Bayern's Lucio who has moved on to Internazionale, have used it as a stepping stone to higher standards of football, but that has only quickened Ribéry's desire to move.
Suggestions in Germany that Ribéry's wife may also hanker for another country may have the same effect. She is the childhood sweetheart whom he met at Chemin-Vert and who persuaded him to convert to her Wahhabi belief. (Ribéry raises his hands to Allah before every match.)
Robben, who is understood to have signed from Real Madrid on the express understanding that Ribéry would stay, has publicly urged him to forget Madrid. "The atmosphere is not good," he has warned his team-mate. Bayern's style of play also seems to suits him, too. Though Van Gaal initially irritated many people when he replaced Jupp Heynckes this summer, he likes to allow players to run with the ball and there are even suggestions that when Ribéry begins a dribble, his team-mates are under instructions to move back and clear the way for him.
Some in Germany feel this kind of culture might actually restore Ribéry, since it resonates so much with his footballing creed. "I feel, at last, that I am living my life," he said soon after arriving at Bayern. "I play how I feel. I don't have a set way of playing. I get going, looking to create danger."
The product of that kind of freedom was to be found in Bayern's group stage game against Juventus in October when the diminutive winger weaved a route through four Italian players and zeroed in on Luigi Buffon's goal. With a collective sharp intake of breath, the stadium prepared for the conclusion of a wonder goal, only for Ribéry to attempt a final piece of showmanship – a lob over Buffon, which failed. "We saw the street footballer in him, in that final clip of the ball," one observer, who has tracked his career, reflected yesterday. "A more conventional player would have just finished it off. He couldn't resist one last piece of audacity. He doesn't care too much."
He will care tonight, though. Having been nursed through most of the season for evenings like this, Ribéry will undoubtedly want to demonstrate that he is a player in the Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi bracket, even though the course of this season has suggested he is anything but. Ferguson's pre-match observation that Ribéry is "a fine player and I like him a lot; I'm not quite sure he's up with Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney but he's a good player," will certainly hurt.
When Barcelona humbled Bayern 4-0 at the Nou Camp in last April's Champions League quarter-final first leg, his own performance was one of the few high points for the Germans and the sight of him in tears at the end, consoled by Henry, revealed how much the loss had cut him. Bayern went into that game on the back of a 5-1 weekend thumping at the hands of Wolfsburg. Tonight they have the memory of the weekend's 2-1 defeat to Stuttgart, which allowed Schalke to replace them at the top of the Bundesliga. Ribéry might not be in the most impeccable psychological state, but he will want to ensure that history does not repeat itself.
Ribéry's nomadic route to the top
Born: 7 April 1983, Boulogne, France
2000-01 played 4 goals 1
2001-02 played 29, goals 6
2002-03 played 18, goals 1
*Brest 2003-04 played 37, goals 4
2004-Jan 05 played 21, goals 2
Jan 05-June 05 played 14, goals 1
2005-06 played 48, goals 7
2006-07 played 32, goals 6
2007-08 played 45, goals 17
2008-09 played 49, goals 15
2009-10 played 22, goals 5