Flying Dutchman gaining momentum
The Netherlands have had a rich history of producing wingers in recent years, but none have been more highly rated than Arjen Robben. Now, with his many fitness issues apparently put to one side, Robben appears set to find his best form at one of the most important times of his career.
Robben has been something of an anomaly during his career thus far. Showing obvious potential with high-priced moves to Chelsea and Real Madrid, the winger's talent has never been in question, but his injury record has.
Without a regular run at any of his clubs, Robben has not managed to start over 25 league games in a season since he was at PSV in 2002-03. Hamstring complaints, knee problems, a host of niggling little injuries have contributed to his lack of action in recent years and, although he can count himself lucky not to have sustained anything too serious, his career has certainly not reach the peak that many predicted.
But now, Robben has found himself a new lease of life at Bayern Munich. Many thought he may struggle in the Bundesliga, especially with Franck Ribery hogging the spotlight, yet the Dutchman has relegated Ribery (himself plagued by injury) to a supporting role for FC Hollywood this season and his goal record of eight goals in 14 games is impressive.
Bayern have gone on a 12-game winning streak to put themselves right back into contention with unbeaten Bayer Leverkusen at the top of the table and Robben has formed an integral part of their success, hitting the net for the last five games in succession and providing numerous chances for his team-mates.
Talk in Germany suggests that he will pick up the Bundesliga's Player of the Year award at the end of the season and one of the reasons for his form appears to be a renewed self-confidence and some 'lucky' long-johns.
Robben was warned by the German Football League over the wearing of his light grey undergarments as they were not the same colour as Bayern's strip. However, they perform a task that is more than just superstitious. Protecting his fragile limbs against Germany's sub-zero temperatures and keeping his muscles warm and relaxed is of key importance to a player who bases much of his game on explosive pace. It appears to be working.
His breathtaking pace and skill, coupled with some consistency, may have taken his game to a new level this season, but Bayern coach Louis van Gaal has been reserved with his praise thus far, reminding his side that they can be ''arrogant'' and that "one single player isn't that important.''
That said, the Bayern team struggle for creativity without him and Robben has been at the heart of everything that has been good about the Bavarians recently.
Robben's revival also raises some interesting questions about the Dutch hopes for the World Cup. With coach Bert van Marwijk favouring a lone striker up front, there is space for two wide men to complement the playmaking of Wesley Sneijder in the centre of midfield.
The Dutch have boasted an impressive array of wingers lately, after Johan Cruyff, who switched between a left-wing and striking role throughout his career, lamented the death of the wideman.
''In the youth leagues you don't see a single winger who goes around the outside and crosses it," he said back in 1981. "Why is that? I think because too many things are taken away.''
John van 't Schip, Marc Overmars and Bolo Zenden led the way in taking players on and getting the ball in the box in the last decade, while the current crop of attackers play in a similar style; perhaps unsurprising given they are led by Van Marwijk - himself a winger in his playing days.
Certainly, if Robben maintains his form and fitness, he is a shoo-in for the spot on the left-wing, with Dirk Kuyt likely to be employed as he is for Liverpool on the right; while there is ample back-up from the likes of Ryan Babel and Eljero Elia.
Elia is certainly seen as one to watch out for and his performances for Hamburg have seen him net five goals in 20 appearances already this season. Relying on skill and sheer athleticism, he could be an imposing prospect from off the bench. "He does things that are anatomically impossible. I would tear everything," former Twente team-mate Sander Boschker has said of the winger.
Babel, too, has the pace and skill to slot into a wide role and he can hurt sides in the latter stages, but he has suffered from a lack of opportunities under Rafael Benitez at Liverpool. Failing to engineer a move away from Anfield in the January transfer window, Babel faces a real fight if he is to get himself in contention for a place in South Africa.
Ultimately, if the Dutch are to fire on all cylinders, the threat of Robben down the flank will be one of their most devastating weapons. The type of player he is suggests that he will always be susceptible to an injury breakdown, but both club and country will be placing their hopes of success firmly on his shoulders over the coming months.