Franck Ribery Q&A: Happy, healthy as Bayern seek Champions League glory
Bayern Munich were 2-0 down and out when a rarely heard voice pierced the silence in the dressing room. It was Franck Ribery's. The Frenchman reminded his distraught teammates that their season wasn't quite finished yet.
"It was very tough. We had taken a real beating in the first half," the 32-year-old recalled in a phone conversation with ESPN FC. "We hadn't expected Juventus to press as high as they did. But we were playing at home and we still had 45 minutes, and it was important that a few of the experienced players, big characters like me, Philipp Lahm and Thomas Muller, pointed out that we could still turn this around."
Bayern had to chase the game against the Italian champions, a team that seemed to have their number that night at the Allianz Arena and gotten close to killing off the tie early on. Said Ribery: "We had to attack but without going crazy, because it would have been over with a third goal [for Juventus]. I said 'Let's score one and see what happens. This is football, after all.'" But what happened next even shocked Bayern's veteran winger.
"We scored four goals against Juventus!" he laughs. "For me, that was madness."
Nearly as surprising as the home side's comeback that night was the role Ribery played in it. In what was only his third start of the season, the attacking midfielder had cut a marginalised figure during the first 45 minutes and performed with the unproductive impatience that often comes with such isolation. He looked rusty, his game was stale and his plight was eerily symbolic of his team; like them, he was going nowhere.
It almost came as a shock to the crowd that he came out again after the break. But Pep Guardiola's unexpected decision to persist with the most individual, tactically non-domesticated member of the team was soon vindicated. Suddenly, Ribery found his rhythm, driving at Stephan Lichtsteiner with a relentlessness that unsettled the visitors. By the time he left the pitch to ovations from the home supporters, 10 minutes into extra time, the tie had swung firmly in Bayern's favour.
"I didn't think I'd be back to my best so soon. I hardly played for 11 months because of all my injuries," he says. "But I felt good after playing for the full 90 minutes against Werder Bremen a few days before, I had trained well and I felt that my hunger was there. It was wonderful to be fully fit and able to help my team." Since coming back from an ankle complaint and muscle injury that had restricted him to only 15 league minutes in 2015-16 through the end of the February, he's put in double training shifts to get up to speed.
While Bayern's season has been largely defined by the freshness of new wingers Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman, Ribery's incisive runs against Juve served as a reminder that the longest-serving foreign player in the squad (only captain Philipp Lahm has played more games) could still be a hugely important part of the Red Machine.
On Saturday came another one: His acrobatic overhead kick won Bayern three points against Eintracht Frankfurt. The man that the hard-core supporters on the Sudkurve terrace revere as "Konig Franck" ("King Frank") has returned to supreme form in his ninth year in Bavaria.
"I've been in this team for a long time," he says. "I've won many titles here and seen it all. I get the feeling that my presence is good for other players and for the whole team. We're having fun together, on the pitch and in the dressing room."
Dortmund's relentlessness ("They're really good, they keep pushing us, we have to win every game") in being five points just behind them in the Bundesliga, has ensured that Bayern have stayed sharper at the business end of the season compared to their two previous campaigns. But the sheer number of options available to Guardiola, have been a significant factor too, something Ribery readily acknowledges.
"The difference this year is that we have more quality in the squad," he says. "The coach is happy because we need to make changes. You need to rotate for everyone to be at the best physical shape and at their top level. We saw last year in the semifinal against Barcelona, where we were missing so many key figures, that you don't have a chance otherwise."
The belief that Bayern could at last go all the way in Guardiola's third and final season is growing, Ribery suggests.
"My feeling is that we could have another great season, we have a great chance. Especially now that our big players are coming back in defence. Javier Martínez is playing again, Jerome Boateng will soon play again, too. We need these guys to go all the way.
"In 2013, when we won the treble, we had no injuries. But let us first get past Benfica. They're very strong defensively and should not be underestimated."
Ribery's anarchic streak made it initially hard for him to get used to Guardiola's very exacting demands. The team and the manager understand each other much better now, he contends, and he sees no fundamental contradiction between the Catalan's obsession over positional details or his need to improvise on the flanks. In fact, he says, Bayern's collective organisation makes the latter possible.
"Guardiola knows that the little details that can make us better. He analyses the game instantly -- that's his biggest strength, his best characteristic. His philosophy of control and high pressing is great for the attacking players because it lets us play further up the field. It's important to prevent the counter-attacks but when we manage that, it's excellent. With the ball, I'm still completely free. I can play on instinct. That hasn't changed."
Ribery said he would love to extend his contract beyond 2017, but Bayern are yet to make a decision. He turns 33 on Thursday and is one the of the best-paid players. His future in the French national team (or lack thereof, to be more precise) is more certain, though. Ribery name-checks Coman and Manchester United's Anthony Martial as "very good young players" who promise much for Les Bleus at Euro 2016 but emphasises that he won't be back playing alongside them.
"It's great to see that it'll be a good team, full of quality. But I've played 81 times and that's it for me," he said.
In Munich, however, the much-discussed start of the post-Ribery era might have to wait a little longer than anticipated. After all Konig Franck, ruler of the Reds' left-hand side, isn't ready to abdicate just yet.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.