There's been nothing drowsy about Arjen Robben over the past month or so: just ask Manchester United's Michael Carrick or Lyons' Brazilian defender Cris, two of the players who have tried and failed to block the missiles delivered from his extraordinary left foot which have sent Bayern Munich to within touching distance of a Champions League final, ahead of a semi-final second-leg in Lyons tonight. But it is a sign of the problems familiar to those who followed him at Chelsea that he is the player who was being described by the German press four months ago as "the man in the grey pyjamas".
The Dutchman's workrate was not being impugned by the headline writers. His big performances have come when they mattered and have arguably kept his manager Louis van Gaal in work during several dark periods this season, but so susceptible to injury are the 26-year-old's muscles that he took to wearing grey leggings when the German temperatures dipped to below zero in the depths of winter. Yes, they really did look like pyjamas: "the man who just rolled out of bed" was another of the German headlines and Robben eventually changed to a snappier red pair – but the ridicule has all been worth it. The extra layers, coupled with the attention of the Dutch osteopath Robben has been frequently returning home to see, have seen him through a season which, by the common consent of Dutch Robben-watchers, has been his most potent in football.
A source of deep satisfaction for Van Gaal is the knowledge that Robben, whose strike in last weeks' semi-final first-leg gives Bayern their slender lead going into tonight's return, would not be around were it not for his own imperious manner. The Bayern board were unconvinced when it was made known to Van Gaal last summer that Robben had concluded he would be fighting a losing battle for a regular first-team place among Real Madrid's new galacticos and should leave. Van Gaal virtually frog-marched them to the Bernabeu in the course of talking them out of their doubts about the player's fitness – and the rewards to all concerned became immediately apparent.
Having missed the start of the Bundesliga season as the transfer saga dragged on, Robben undertook a single Friday morning's training session before being launched into a debut at home to the German champions Wolfsburg in late August. Van Gaal, whose side had collected just two points from their opening three league matches, watched Robben create two goals and Franck Ribéry the other in a 3-0 win. "Ro-bery" screamed one of the ensuing headlines and it was generally agreed in the German capital that the flying left-winger might just have saved his compatriot's job.
Robben's goals have come so fluidly in the months since – 20 goals in 32 appearances for Bayern this season, 16 of those since the turn of the year and 10 in the last 10 games in all competitions – that Tulips from Amsterdam, which now greets each one of them, has become a familiar refrain. But it's not been a bed of roses at all times. The injuries which meant Robben made no more than a 45-minute contribution to any single game between 27 September and 18 December saw Bayern on the brink of Champions League elimination. Only Juventus' calamities enabled the Germans to qualify second in their group.
It has all made for a uncharacteristically harmonious relationship between manager and player. Uncharacteristic, because Van Gaal is the coach whose high and mighty ways do not endear him to star players. His most spectacular falling out was with a left-footed winger just like Robben – Rivaldo, part of the stellar Barcelona front three with Luis Figo and Patrick Kluivert, whom he told to forget his individualism and focus more on passing. Robben is known to speak his mind, too, but Van Gaal's belief that left-footed players can flourish on the right – he was actually one of the first coaches to try out such an idea – has suited Robben perfectly. The two clashed memorably when Van Gaal substituted him minutes from the end of last week's first-leg tie but player quickly and publicly apologised to manager. He had thought there was another goal in him, he reflected, but accepted that Van Gaal wanted him to depart early and enjoy an ovation.
Robben is in no doubt about who's boss at Bayern but Van Gaal helpfully reinforced the point at his press conference yesterday. "No player has the guarantee to play 90 minutes with me, he has to do his job. When he is not doing his [job] then he is out of the team," he said. "All the players have to know that."
It's the kind of authority that Robben could perhaps have done with at Chelsea, where his growing disaffection saw him drift away and become lost to English football far earlier than he need have been (he scored only 18 goals in 103 games for Chelsea; 12 in two seasons for Real Madrid).
What might have been had Sir Alex Ferguson not been beaten to the punch by Chelsea we can only wonder. Robben succumbed to the blandishments of Claudio Ranieri and Peter Kenyon, he has said, because Manchester United had reneged on an original deal and because the Chelsea men travelled to Eindhoven to meet him.
That's all long gone now, though. Ferguson stared straight ahead when asked after Robben's wonder strike had put United out of this tournament whether he had considered making the same move Van Gaal did last summer. "No, not at all. Just not interested."
With Van Gaal set to add yet another Dutch coach to his backroom team this summer, the winger feels increasingly at home. And a triumph tonight, he has declared in recent days, would give him the satisfaction of returning to the Bernabeu for the Champions League final. Robben will be a player with his eyes wide open tonight.
Arjen Robben, Bayern Munich
20 goals in 32 games for Bayern this season
16 of which have come since the turn of the year
10 goals in his last 10 appearances in all competitionsReuse content