Robben rejects the talk of friction and the image of frailty

Dutchman flying again and trying to prove the doubters wrong with his inner strength
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The Independent Football

Think Arjen Robben and the image that comes to mind is of a rather frail looking figure racing past a defender, either whipping in a shot or crashing to the ground. The Chelsea winger is determined that in future there should be more of the former and less of the latter; and that the mental picture of a painful jog to the touchline should be eliminated altogether.

The Dutch coach, Marco van Basten, who was forced to truncate his own magnificent career with a bad ankle injury, has told him to develop an awareness of danger from reckless opponents. But there is an air of the innocent abroad in the 21-year-old from a small village in northern Holland, even when talking about the assaults that restricted him to only 14 starts on his belated introduction to the Premiership last autumn.

First there was Olivier Dacourt, of Roma, in Chelsea's American tour before the season had even begun: "Some ridiculous kick from behind, nothing I could do about it." Then Blackburn's Aaron Mokoena in a key game last February: "I was just quicker to the ball and he stamped on my ankle. I don't feel I got kicked a lot."

In between times, Robben had made a dramatic impact, adding a new dimension to his side's attack by offering even more pace and trickery down one flank than Damien Duff on the other. There were stories suggesting that team-mates felt he ought at times to have played through the pain barrier - notably in the Champions' League semi-finals against Liverpool - and that friction with Jose Mourinho resulted, but Robben insists: "There's been no problem between him and me."

The new season has been equally frustrating, causing him to miss more than half of Chelsea's games because of three separate hamstring problems. But a start against Arsenal today would be a fourth in succession, so he is entitled to believe that the troublesome left hamstring is prepared to offer him some peace: "People have written that I'm injury-prone but I don't think so. If you look back at last season it was kicks that you can't do anything about. This season it was the same problem that came back three times.

"I just hope it's all over now. I feel very strong again and hope to continue that way. It's just very difficult when you play, then stop again and don't get a rhythm going. It's mental thing as well, and I think I'm mentally very strong. You have to fight and work hard to come back and I've been working my bollocks off."

He has obviously picked up the dressing-room argot, even if the phrase is not the most felicitous for someone who required an operation two years ago for a testicular tumour that fortunately proved to be non-malignant.

At that time he was a teenager at PSV Eindhoven, but already on his second club after making a (winning) debut for Groningen against Feyenoord while still a 16-year-old schoolboy. He would have joined Manchester United had they not bargained too hard with PSV in attempting to knock down the transfer fee from £12m, infuriating his father and agent, Hans, and allowing opportunity to knock for Chelsea's Claudio Ranieri, who tied up the deal for the end of that season while suspecting - correctly - that he would not be around to reap the rewards.

Robben has been fortunate with his coaches, including PSV's Guus Hiddink and now Mourinho, whose meticulous organisation and attention to detail impress him. "It's difficult to compare managers and I've worked with quite a few good ones. I've enjoyed it and I learn from him. But I think the most important thing for a player is that you do it yourself and pick the things up that you think you need.

"I don't know if we're friends with the manager. We're just a very good group together, players and staff, the spirit and mentality and atmosphere are great and that's a main reason why we got successful last year."

Looking at the Premiership table, and the Champions' League draw, it can reasonably be assumed there are no regrets that his day-to-day workplace is in Cobham, Surrey, rather than Carrington, Manchester, employed by what he regards as "the best club in Europe".

To prove that, of course, they need to overcome Barcelona next spring in a tie that must have had most of Chelsea's players more excited than they were prepared to let on when reluctantly drawn into talking about it last Friday: "Yes, I'm really looking forward to that but it's only in February, so after today we're only focused on Arsenal and the rest of the League. What we said was that we could only get strong opponents because we were second in the group. But for them they could only get easier opponents than Chelsea. You're in it to win it."

As for this afternoon's game, up against "one of the great footballers of Holland" in Dennis Bergkamp, he sees it as a chance to eliminate one of the supposed championship contenders, though not all of them - yet.

"I wouldn't say we'd won the title because it's not only Arsenal, it's also Manchester and Liverpool. The gap with Arsenal is bigger, so the pressure is more with them than us because if they lose, the gap will be enormous. It will be difficult for them to come back if they lose. And even if they win."

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