The sun in Doha was shining down from the January skies, and Arjen Robben was beaming almost as brightly after his successful comeback in FC Bayern München's 4-0 friendly win against Al-Wakrah in Qatar last weekend.
The Dutchman played 45 minutes and could have lasted longer. "
Actually, I did not want to leave the pitch – I would have preferred to play 90 minutes," said Robben, whose half-time withdrawal had been pre-planned. Hardly able to contain his delight, the 26-year-old added: "It is just super to be back on the pitch. I believe I did well. I had not expected to be back to normal this quickly."
Robben's declaration that he would "love to play again tomorrow" was music to the ears of his compatriot Louis van Gaal. "I would not have believed he'd be so far [with his recovery] already," said the Bayern coach of a player who last appeared for his club in last May's UEFA Champions League final, before helping take the Netherlands to the 2010 FIFA World Cup final.
Since then, Robben has been absent with a thigh injury but his return provides a major boost to Bayern's ambitions, despite the 14-point gap separating them from Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund. Bayern are fifth in the table but Van Gaal was in combative mood when he said: "I want to win it all. We have to put pressure on Dortmund. It was a great training camp. We have become much stronger."
It will help to have the new €17m signing Luiz Gustavo on board – and available to play at left-back or in a midfield holding role – and striker Mario Gomez, another player fit again after injury, echoed the prevailing optimism when he said: "We know there is a long road ahead for us, but we also know it is not impossible. So, why should we not believe in ourselves?"
With Franck Ribéry restored to the starting lineup in November, Bayern fans are now looking forward to seeing their two main danger men back in tandem, though Robben will likely start on the bench on Saturday against VfL Wolfsburg as the second half of the Bundesliga season gets under way. "Of course, I am not 100% yet, but that's normal. I want to be in the starting XI as soon as possible," Robben added.
Things are not looking as positive for another big name in Germany, however. Bayer 04 Leverkusen's Michael Ballack returned to action last Thursday in a 2-1 friendly win against SC Rot-Weiss Oberhausen after a shin injury but while the midfielder was upbeat – declaring it "a good start, although of course I will need games now" – his coach, Jupp Heynckes, seemed more sceptical. When Heynckes tried out a possible starting XI on Sunday for Friday's meeting with leaders Dortmund, Ballack – who suffered a fracture at the top of his shin bone in September – was not even in the squad.
Heynckes said: "You could see that [Ballack] is still lacking quite a bit but he will get there through training and matches. When a player is out for such a long time – Michael has been sidelined for almost seven months – then it just takes time, be it with fitness, confidence or match practice. That is just normal and Michael is no different."
It looks like there will be no quick way back for the 34-year-old Germany captain, with his place in Leverkusen's central midfield covered so effectively by the trio of Simon Rolfes, Arturo Vidal and Lars Bender in the first part of the campaign. It will also be interesting to see if Germany coach Joachim Löw calls him up soon with a friendly against Italy looming on 9 February.
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