After two seasons of injuries and scandal, Bayern winger Franck Ribery has recently shown signs of his former class. But is he really returning to his old form, or is this just a smooth patch on a rocky road?
Ribery is trying to pick himself back up after some setbacks
Fans watching Bayern's 6-0 demolition of Hamburg this weekend might have been forgiven, if they'd asked themselves: "Who's that dribbling fiend on the left-hand side who's causing so many problems for Hamburg's defense?"
The answer, of course, was Franck Ribery. With three assists and a goal of his own, the diminutive Frenchman turned in the sort of performance he hadn't shown for quite some time in Bayern dress.
Particularly impressive was his work on the final tally of the match, credited as an own goal to Hamburg defender Heiko Westermann.
Ribery juked two defenders and walked a tightrope on the end line before rifling it in front of goal. It was the sort of move very few players in Bundesliga are capable of.
"I'm having more fun again on the pitch," the winger told reporters after the game, and when he was asked whether that was related to coach Louis van Gaal leaving in the summer, he responded in the affirmative.
The relationship between Ribery and van Gaal, who initially benched the winger when taking command of Bayern in 2009, hasn't always been the most cordial.
But it would be too easy to blame the cantankerous Dutchman alone for Ribery's failure to produce in past seasons. In fact, Monsieur Franck's problems started much earlier - and are in part self-manufactured.
Rise and fall
Ribery is one of the best dribblers in Germany
When he arrived in Munich at the start of the 2007-8 season, for a then club-record transfer fee of 25 million euros ($34.8 million), the Frenchman made an immediate impact and became one of the Bundesliga's brightest stars. The winger had 11 league goals and 8 assists that season, as Bayern went on to do the double.
But he injured ligaments at the start of the following campaign, missing nine league matches and seeing his scoring decline.
Things were even worse the following year. While Bayern rebounded and won another double, thanks in part to the arrival of Arjen Robben, Ribery had another injury-plagued season that saw him tally only 4 league goals and 6 assists in 20 matches.
The left winger clearly played second fiddle to his Dutch counterpart on the right and was overshadowed somewhat by talented youngsters like Thomas Müller as well.
Meanwhile ahead of the 2010, Ribery became the subject of investigations over whether he, together with another member of the French national team, had knowingly used the services of an underage French prostitute.
Ribery denied any knowledge of the age of the woman in question, but the affair earned him criticism from fellow footballers.
"I have grave doubts about his professionalism: a player who is injured that often and regularly makes the front page without the stories being necessarily about football," former German national keeper Jens Lehmann said about Ribery last month on German television.
French authorities have charged Ribery. And there has been no word that the case has been resolved one way or the other.
Long way back
Ribery's best season for Bayern was 2007-8
The scandal, combined with France's disastrous and mutinous performance at the World Cup, meant that Ribery entered this Bundesliga season with some serious baggage. And with every Bayern stumble, questions have been raised about whether the French star is truly earning his keep.
But Ribery is a fighter. Having received his unusual facial scars from a car accident at the age of two and having overcome an impoverished background which saw him work briefly in construction, the winger would not be where he is today if he weren't a tough cookie.
The task now, at the age of 27, is for him to show that he still ranks among Europe's best footballers. His performance against Hamburg took his numbers for this season up to a respectable three goals and 13 assists in 18 league matches.
Arguably, it was hard for an offensive player not to get on the scoreboard against hapless Hamburg. But Ribery will have a chance to further show he's back when Bayern take on Inter Milan in a Champions League grudge re-match this week -- and in the remaining eight Bundesliga matches, in which Munich still have to make up ground in order to qualify for the world's premier club competition next year.
If he fails to come up with the goods, the man who was the most valuable player in the 2007-2008 Bundesliga will have to face accusations that he was but a one-season phenomenon.
But fans of mind-boggling ball-handling will hope that Monsieur Franck's star is once more in the ascendancy.
Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Michael Lawton