Injury prevented the flying Dutchman from ever fulfilling his true potential in west London, but the Blues never found a way to replace the dazzling talent they sold to MadridCOMMENT
By Liam Twomey
When Chelsea fans at the Allianz Arena peruse the Bayern Munich starting line-up on Saturday, any utterance of the name Arjen Robben will leave a bittersweet taste.
The flying Dutchman exhilarated and exasperated in equal measure during his three years at Stamford Bridge, troubling physios as much as he did opposing defenders.
Signed from under the nose of Manchester United in the summer of 2004, Robben lit up Chelsea’s maiden Premier League title season for four months between October and February, until a mistimed Aaron Mokoena tackle effectively ended his campaign during an ill-tempered clash with Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park.
During that time, it was the fleet-footed winger’s dazzling combinations with the equally slick Damien Duff which attracted the most praise, adding as it did a layer of devastating gloss to Jose Mourinho’s ruthlessly efficient winning machine.
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For while there may have been more good games in a blue shirt, and more important goals, fallible fitness levels prevented Robben from assuming the key role his talent deserved in west London.
In his absence, other impressive, if less thrilling, figures went on to became the cornerstones of Mourinho’s Chelsea, and in time the Special One came to view his fantastic yet fragile wideman as expendable. When Real Madrid came knocking with around £25 million in the summer of 2007, there was little resistance.
Robben’s departure was not the primary factor in the end of the Blues’ domestic hegemony – they had already been edged out by Sir Alex Ferguson’s new United crop boasting Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney in the Dutchman’s final season – but it did mark a sea change in the style of football on offer at Stamford Bridge.
Whether operating in a narrow 4-4-2 diamond midfield with Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack vying for control of the orchestra, or the tried and trusted 4-3-3 with inferior replacements Florent Malouda or Nicolas Anelka bulldozing their way down the flanks, the searing pace, mesmeric skill and direct running Robben had offered was no longer within the Chelsea armoury.
In its place came the slower, more deliberate, attritional approach now considered synonymous with the Roman Abramovich era. It is one which gains few admirers, and the Russian himself has spent almost £140m in the last two years trying to change it.
But as ‘Boring, Boring Chelsea’ became a favoured chant across many top flight English grounds, Robben was dazzling in his new surroundings.
Along with countryman Wesley Sneijder, he provided the fantasy in Bernd Schuster’s Madrid side which capitalised on the implosion of Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona to win La Liga in his debut season. The next year he again grew in stature, even as the resurgent Catalans, now under Pep Guardiola, conquered Spain and Europe.
In purely footballing terms, Robben had done more than enough to be regarded as indispensable at the Santiago Bernabeu. But unfortunately for him, decisions at Real Madrid have rarely, if ever, been made in purely footballing terms.
The marquee names of the Ramon Calderon era, he and Sneijder came to be seen as the wrong president’s men when former chief Florentino Perez returned and embarked upon his ‘Galactico: Mark II’ project. Both were jettisoned to make way for the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka, despite the protestations of lame duck coach Manuel Pellegrini.
Banished to Bayern, Robben responded with the best season of his career, firing his new club to the Bundesliga title and the Champions League final before helping Netherlands to the World Cup final in South Africa. His brilliance merited more than the two losers’ medals he received.
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Life in Munich since has been decidedly mixed. Robben’s phenomenal ability is inextricably linked to an uncompromising ego, and a perceived tendency to put himself before the team has brought him into conflict with many of his team-mates – none more so than Franck Ribery, Bayern’s other flamboyantly gifted and truly enigmatic artist.
Chelsea have met Saturday’s opponents just once before in the Champions League, triumphing over two legs en route to the semi-finals in 2005. Only Bastian Schweinsteiger remains from the ageing Bayern team beaten that year, having matured to world-class level and been supplemented by an impressive arsenal of attacking talent Roberto Di Matteo must fret over.
There is Mario Gomez, whose incredible tally of 41 goals this season would be the talk of Europe were it not for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Thomas Muller and Toni Kroos are also match-winners of genuine substance. Captain Philipp Lahm is as dangerous an attacking full-back as can be found anywhere in the world, while Ribery’s gift and curse is that he is capable of almost anything.
But rightly or wrongly, it is Robben who is considered the greatest threat to Chelsea. Both player and club have trodden significantly different paths over the past five years, but raw memories of Champions League heartbreak unite them.
For one or the other, the pain will be erased on Saturday. Chelsea fans are simply praying it is he, and not they, who will be left ruing the one that got away.
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