After a lengthy battle with injury, things are suddenly looking up for FC Bayern München's Franck Ribery.
The Frenchman made all the difference after replacing Arjen Robben in the 56th minute on Matchday 23 as the Bundesliga leaders overcame last season's runners-up VfL Wolfsburg to the tune of 2-0 at the Volkswagen Arena.
With the game finely poised at 0-0, Guardiola implemented his Plan C. Thiago Alcantara had already replaced jet-heeled Brazil international winger Douglas Costa, but the Catalan instinctively knew something was missing. Robben was sacrificed as Ribery stepped off the bench as he had done a week earlier against SV Darmstadt 98, breathing Bundesliga air for only the third time this season.
Ten minutes later, Bayern duly took the lead. A mazy Ribery run and cross allowed Robert Lewandowski a sight of goal, and when the Pole’s deflected effort fell to Kingsley Coman, the Juventus loanee made no mistake. The defending champions doubled up shortly after, this time with Ribery claiming an assist - a nonchalant lay-off with his chest - for the 23-goal Lewandowski.
Prolific in every sense
"Franck is just on another level," proclaimed Bayern sporting director Matthias Sammer, mindful of the eye-catching statistics that have punctuated Ribery's hitherto eight-year stay at the Allianz Arena. Although the 32-year-old winger has been afflicted by a number of injuries in all but one of his nine seasons at the club, he has had a direct say in a staggering 171 goals in 196 Bundesliga appearances – including three in 86 minutes in 2015/16.
Even opposition players cannot help but doff their hat to the retired France international following a protracted spell on the sidelines. First it was a chronic ankle problem dating back to 11 March 2015 and then, after a brief cameo against Borussia Mönchengladbach on Matchday 15, a niggling thigh complaint. No wonder Wolfsburg defender Dante was so pleased to be reunited with his former Bayern team-mate, despite the result: "I was just delighted and I'm particularly happy that he's fit again."
Falling into place
Delighted, however, does not do justice to the current mood in the Bayern camp. Despite having only one recognised central defender in the squad, the defending champions are resiliently holding their own in the Bundesliga, DFB Cup and UEFA Champions League. Now they are just a fit Mario Götze shy of being in a position to unleash the most enviable forward line in football on the watching world.
With the business end of the season looming large, Guardiola's master plan is taking shape. He already boasts a treasure trove of attacking talent, but it is the match-winners - the experienced heads - that tend to make the real difference when it comes to the crunch. In that regard, Ribery's comeback could not have been more timely.
Alexander Barklage/ Christopher Mayer-Lodge