Bayern Munich relying on 'Robbery' for one last time to snatch Bundesliga title from under Borussia Dortmund's noses
With Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben expected to leave Munich in summer, German club will hope for one last hurrah from pair as they trail 'winter champion' Dortmund by six points
It is seven years since the Bundesliga had a 'winter champion' who ended up falling away in the subsequent five months and not lifting the championship shield.
That is why German football makes quite a fuss about the distinction, and focuses on the mid-point of the season – 17 games played – as the key moment to take stock, ahead of its four-week winter break.
It is eight years since the halfway leader was not Bayern Munich, which should encourage Borussia Dortmund, who find themselves six points clear heading off on their holidays. Dortmund are Herbstmeister – or winter leaders – for the first time since December 2010 when they were on their way to the first of a pair of titles under Jurgen Klopp.
The following season, Dortmund were second at halfway, and then stormed on to overtake Bayern by May.
In those days, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben were still a petulant pair of twenty-somethings, dancing down either Bayern wing at the spick-and-span new Allianz Arena and, more than once, arguing over the right to take direct free-kicks. ‘Robbery’, the nickname that combined their surnames, was still fresh.
The capacity of this combination of French maverick and mercurial Dutchman to consistently make Bayern the best attacking force in German football was more questionable. After six successive league titles together, those questions were fully answered.
They are still there, too, both hoping to play leading roles in the rousing comeback Bayern have plotted for the new year. It may well be their last chance to add to their collection of German titles.
Every indication is that, come June, the Ribery-Robben era at Bayern will come to a close. The two veterans – Robben will turn 35 next month, Ribery 36 in May – are expected to say ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ to the club they have both served longer than any in their much-travelled careers.
Robben has declared that the summer of 2019, when he will mark 10 years at Bayern, will bring his likely departure from Munich. Ribery seemed to have been gently, respectfully ushered towards the same exit date by the club’s management, although the response they have had from the player – who joined from Olympique Marseille in 2007 – to that suggestion has been defiant.
Ribery spoke enigmatically about his future at the weekend: “You never know,” he smiled. “I love Bayern and Bayern loves me.”
They certainly do at the moment. Ribery’s four goals in his last three Bundesliga appearances have galvanised Bayern through the lead-up to the winter break.
They have helped generate confidence that they can and will make a competitive title race of a season that Dortmund had apparently commandeered a month ago. Dortmund thundered towards a 15-match unbeaten start to the campaign while Bayern, beaten at Dortmund, managed just two victories in a sequence of eight Bundesliga games.
The panorama altered significantly when Ribery scored the only goal of the game in Bayern’s win over RB Leipzig last week, as Dortmund lost for the first time, at Fortuna Dusseldorf.
Ribery followed that up with a goal in each half of the 3-0 win at Eintracht Frankfurt at the weekend to ease Bayern, champions for the last six seasons, into second place. From there, they plan to stalk Dortmund, menacingly, into 2019.
Robben, who has missed December with a thigh problem, should be back in action for the post-vacation resumption on January 18 when Bayern have a Friday night fixture at Hoffenheim and so can potentially steal a march on Dortmund, who must go to Leipzig the following day.
“We are all targeting the title,” said Bayern manager Niko Kovac, a man looking increasingly confident he has ironed out the difficulties that confronted him in his first four months in the job.
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Kovac, 47, is young for this most demanding role. He will need to coax the best from his senior men, his seasoned champions, if Dortmund are to be overhauled. He will also have to inspired Bayern, serial European Cup semi-finalists in recent years, to maintain their high standards in the Uefa Champions League, where they will meet Klopp’s Liverpool in February’s last-16 round.
It means Robert Lewandowski maintaining his peerless record in front of goal. It means Manuel Neuer returning to his best after a challenging 2018 with injury and a World Cup disappointment for the Germany goalkeeper.
It means a fruitful last hurrah for Ribery and Robben, footballers whose manoeuvres on the ball may be familiar but who remain devilishly hard for defenders to contain.
They have provided magic in Munich far longer than anybody would have anticipated when they came together a decade ago. Working in direct tandem, they have been worth 145 goals and over 150 assists. Most important, they have shared a Champions League triumph and seven Bundesliga titles.
The aim is for that list of prizes to grow.
Updated: December 24, 2018 03:36 PM