Still competing on three fronts, talk of finding form and fitness when it matters most has been a constant of FC Bayern München's campaign and, in Franck Ribery, one of their stars appears to be executing the gameplan to perfection.
Speaking before the 1-0 win over Eintracht Frankfurt, the 32-year-old conceded that "a lot of people probably doubted I would get back to my level of play", following an 11-month spell on the sidelines. A match-winning performance in the Allianz Arena, which included a goal-of-the-season candidate, are the first pieces of proof that Ribery hasn't lost his touch.
'A special goal'
One moment of magic from the Frenchman was all it took for the record titleholders to record their 23rd league win of the season. Frankfurt goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky did well to save Mario Götze's initial effort on 20 minutes, but was helpless to prevent Ribery's sensationally improvised overhead kick from looping beyond his reach from the rebound. "All you can do there is applaud," admitted the Eagles' No1, while head coach Pep Guardiola hailed the effort as an "unbelievable goal".
"It was a special goal," mused Ribery himself. "You don't see something like that in every game. I've never scored a goal like I did today." His 70th Bundesliga goal for Bayern and first on home soil since March of last year, will live long in the memory, while the outpouring of emotion in his celebration was "a necessary release" following one of the most frustrating periods of his career.
A long-standing ankle injury kept Ribery out for almost the entirety of the first half of the season, before he made a goal-scoring comeback in the 3-1 loss to Borussia Mönchengladbach in December. Another injury setback then kept him out of action until the 3-1 win over SV Darmstadt 98 on Matchday 22, but even then, due to a lack of match fitness, Ribery still looked to be weeks away from a highlight like this weekend.
However, the impassioned sprint along the Allianz Arena's touchline in front of "his audience", as Ribery himself put it, was ultimately the reward for all the blood, sweat and tears he has invested in his recovery. "I do two individual sessions everyday," explained the winger. "I'm fighting for these appearances."
Ribery's battling qualities have won him many an admirer in Munich and, while his goal stole the headlines, his grinding on and off the ball were ultimately the hallmarks of a stunning outing. The Boulogne-sur-Mer native made the most challenges (26) of any Bayern player and won an impressive 61.5 per cent in the process.
Fun the vital factor
Yet the crucial component cannot be found in any statistic. The joy Ribery experiences with a football at his feet is essential to his return to form and, for Bayern, is of unquantifiable value. "It's fun being out on the pitch," exclaimed Ribery, visibly relieved to have overcome the almost year-long injury ordeal.
"I can't say whether I'm at 100, 05 or 90 per cent right now, but I feel better with every passing game," concluded the fan favourite. Considering that Bayern are entering the business end of the season - with at least seven more games to play in April, beginning with SL Benfica in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday - the Reds will be hoping that there is just no stopping their wily wing wizard.
Maximilian Lotz / James Thorogood