When Bayern trudged off the pitch after their 4-0 loss to Real Madrid on Tuesday, they knew they had failed. Failed to raise their game, failed to reach a Champions League final they had been favourites to win and failed to perform.
It was startling. Just three months ago the Bavarians looked unbeatable. They were beating teams for fun, they had world-class, in-form talent in every department and there was no doubt as to who their star was: Franck Ribery.
The Frenchman was in majestic form throughout their treble-winning campaign last term. Every single member of Jupp Heynckes’ team played a part in their success but Ribery was head and shoulders above the rest.
In August, he was rewarded with Uefa’s award for the best player in Europe, beating Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to the prize, and scored a spectacular goal to help deliver the Super Cup to Bavaria.
And, during the difficult first few weeks of the season under new coach Pep Guardiola, it was Ribery who led Bayern to victory. The team initially struggled to get to grips with a new system and style of play, but their 31-year-old winger’s fine form repeatedly got the Bavarians out of trouble.
As the voting for the Ballon d’Or loomed, he maintained his fine form. He scored a brilliant goal in the 3-1 at Manchester City at the Etihad – still regarded as his side’s best performance of the season – and terrorised countless full-backs in the Bundesliga.
Come January, though, Ronaldo claimed football’s biggest individual award. Ribery, after spending months speaking of how he deserved it more than the Portuguese, was crushed. Since then, his form has dipped dramatically.
Since the turn of the year, he has netted just four goals and, more worryingly, none of them have come in what can be classified as a ‘big’ game. Injury ruined his rhythm and Ribery was unable to recover his form when he returned to the fold for the 1-1 draw with Arsenal after a month out.
For former Bayern captain Oliver Kahn, though, the reason for his demise was not fitness-based. “It’s hard for a sensitive player like him not to win the Ballon d’Or after winning the treble. But you should be able to move on at some stage. It shouldn’t be about Ribery; it should be about Bayern.”
Of course, since Guardiola’s side sealed the Bundesliga back in March, their form has also tailed off radically, with Ribery among the biggest disappointments of the last six weeks. His failings, though, have been made worse by those of his team-mates.
A portion of the blame, though, lies with his Catalan coach. When Bayern were a fast, counterattacking machine last term, Ribery had a constant supply of space to run into and he made full use of it.
Now, though, when the Bavarians look to dominate matches and pen opponents back into their own territory, he finds himself stifled, along with many of his team-mates.
The perfect illustration was at the Santiago Bernabeu. Madrid sat back and looked to hit Bayern on the counter, starving them of space when the European champions were in possession. How Ribery would have thrived in the space his side left behind them.
Speaking to Goal between the two legs, former midfielder Stefan Effenberg stated his belief that their slump in form came from both Ribery’s poor form and the tactics.
“They lacked a change of pace against Madrid. They want to pass the ball in front of the box like in handball. What’s more, Ribery is not in as great shape as last year. Their game stagnates because of his crisis.”
So, the player who thrives on keeping defenders guessing was playing in team whose gameplan was all too predictable.
His slip has come at the worse time. Borussia Dortmund will fancy their chances of winning the DFB-Pokal, given their superior end-of-season form, and coming away from a season that promised a second straight treble with just one trophy would be a failure by the standards Bayern have set themselves.
Further ahead comes the World Cup and Ribery will be hoping to have recovered his form in time for the tournament in Brazil. France have spent nigh on a decade underachieving and Ribery was still young when they reached the final of the competition eight years ago.
Talented though he was, Thierry Henry, Zinedine Zidane and Patrick Vieira were the star performers.
Now that he is 31 and the star attraction of Didier Deschamps’ squad, he must deliver on the big stage, or his international career will go down as an addendum of a man who shone for his club, but could never quite do it for his nation.
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