Munich - It is one of the defining football images of recent years: Arms spread wide, eyes bulging as if in disbelief, yelling perhaps as much in vindication as triumph, Arjen Robben races to the Wembley touchline to celebrate with the FC Bayern München fans after scoring the goal that has just won his team the 2013 UEFA Champions League.
Guardiola's 'special project'
Less than two minutes later, the first all-Bundesliga finale to Europe's premier club competition was over and shortly after Bayern's 2-1 victory over Borussia Dortmund, man of the match Robben admitted: "My whole career went through my mind when I scored. It's such a special feeling - I don't know how many times I've dreamed about it." The picture had already told a thousand words, but sheer unadulterated joy was not the half of it. Robben's career has been quite a rollercoaster ride and his match-winning moment last May marked the high point - so far - for the Dutch winger, a year after the ultimate low.
Twelve months previously, Robben had missed the extra-time penalty which would have put Bayern 2-1 up against his former employers Chelsea FC in the 2012 final at their own Allianz Arena. The London club went on to win a dramatic penalty shootout – in which Robben was not involved – leaving the No. 10 disconsolate. With Dortmund having swept them aside in both the league and the DFB Cup final, the men from Munich thus finished the season empty-handed.
Their response since is a matter of remarkable statistical record, starting with the unique treble achieved on the rebound in Jupp Heynckes's final season in charge and still going strong under his successor, Pep Guardiola. It is, says Robben, a "special project", multifaceted but with the biggest single change being "to dominate possession even higher up the pitch. We've a lot of quality in the team and now we're trying to bring it to the next level."
In the view of many a pundit, the recently-crowned FIFA Club World Cup winners are already well on their way. For his part, Guardiola made Robben's role in the process eminently clear at Bayern's winter training camp in Qatar, when the winger was still recovering from a deep cut to the knee suffered in the in December: "Arjen played incredibly well in the month or so before he got injured, he was probably our best player over that period. I've worked with maybe one or two other players in my career before coming to Bayern with a similarly professional attitude to Arjen. He's got an unbelievable mentality."
More to come?
That mental toughness has at times been overlooked in a player who has had to bounce back from more than his fair share of injuries down the years. Signed from Real Madrid CF at the end of August 2009, he marked his debut for Bayern with two goals off the bench against VfL Wolfsburg. It was a portentous start to a campaign that would end with the Bavarians claiming a Bundesliga and DFB Cup double and reaching the final of the Champions League, where they lost out to FC Internazionale Milano. Robben meanwhile picked up his own personal double, winning the German Player of the Year and the Players' Player of 2009/10 awards.
A thigh injury, sustained playing for the Netherlands in a pre-2010 FIFA World Cup friendly and further aggravated during the tournament in South Africa, resulted in the flying Dutchman missing the entire first half of the following season. Despite chipping in with twelve goals and ten assists in just 14 appearances on his return, the Munich club finished the season trophyless. The following season was just as disappointing for Robben and Co., with Bayern coming off second-best on three fronts. Robben experienced his next major low point in a pivotal league encounter at Dortmund, missing a penalty and another gilt-edged chance late in a narrow BVB win which effectively sealed their second straight title. Even that, though, was soon to be overshadowed by the hurt of the Champions League loss to Chelsea.
Since then, it has been a tale of almost unremitting triumph for club and player alike. Having found his niche under Guardiola, and managing to maintain a scoring record of more than a goal every other game, Robben is looking forward to playing his part in Bayern's defence of their domestic and European titles over the coming months. After that comes the World Cup in Brazil with the Netherlands - beaten finalists back in 2010. This time around, Robben is playing down talk of the Dutch going all the way. "We're certainly not the favourites, but we're improving," he said. "There's still a lot of work to be done. We need to stay focused and realistic." That said, Robben knows from first-hand experience that dreams do, sometimes, come true.