In 2010 Dutch winger Arjen Robben suffered the heartbreak of losing what most would consider to be the two most prestigious finals in world football: the Champions League Final and the World Cup Final. Two years on and he has a third opportunity to claim the type of winner’s medal that most players can only dream of.
Almost sixty year earlier with England only having bothered entering the World Cup for the first time in 1950 and with the Champions League’s forerunner, the European Cup, not beginning until 1955/56, the winner’s medal that England winger Stanley Matthews dreamt of was an FA Cup winner’s medal. Like Robben he too suffered heartbreak in the final twice, in 1948 and 1951, before he had a third shot at glory.
At 38 years old much was made of the 1953 FA Cup Final being Matthews last chance and in his autobiography (that I happen to be reading at the moment…) says that he knew it was his “final of finals” despite firmly believing that he could keep playing for several years as no doubt Robben does at only 28. (As it turned out Matthews, almost unbelievably, played for a further 12 years but he would never reach the FA Cup Final again.)
It was third time lucky for Matthews however as despite being 1-3 down with only half an hour to go his Blackpool side fought back to win 4-3 with the final goals coming in the 89th and 92nd minutes! (Man City eat your heart out!) The injury time winner was set up by Matthews himself who tore Bolton apart in the final thirty minutes of what is still known as the Matthews Final…
Interestingly though, Matthews says that the final should forever be known as the Mortensen Final insisting that it was his hat-trick scoring team mate Stanley ‘Morty’ Mortensen who was the real star of the show. According to Matthews, when he cut the ball back for the winning goal he was aiming for where, thanks to his near-telepathic relationship with Mortensen, he thought his team mate would be and was mortified to see that he had actually taken up a position at the far post.
Mortensen though, far from not being on the same wavelength, had decided that he was being too tightly marked to be sure of scoring and so vacated the area he knew the ball would come to, taking the markers with him, and called for Bill Perry to run into the space who duly converted. (Mortensen also scored a rocket of free-kick earlier in the match, undoubtedly he and Matthews were both in inspired form that day and the highlights are well worth a watch.)
So are Robben’s dreams of making it third time lucky himself largely dependent on the performance of and his relationship with Bayern’s enigmatic forward Mario Gomez? Robben may hope not as despite his impressive scoring record very few football fans would back Gomez to be either as clinical, brave or unselfish as Stan Mortensen was in 1953! Luckily for the Dutchman though he may not have to rely on Gomez at all as his style of play is very different to the one Matthews had developed:
“I was beginning to be tightly marked by full-backs, so I made a conscious effort to drop deeper to collect the ball… My goals had come from coming inside as wingers were apt to do at the time. Having given this much thought, I decided (in 1937/38) I would be better employed taking the ball to the dead-ball line and cutting it back for our oncoming forwards who couldn’t be offside if they received a backward pass or centre from me… I wasn’t scoring goals anywhere like I had been but this ploy created far more opportunities for our forwards.”
-Sir Stanley Matthews
Robben’s primary strengths lie not in what we would now consider ‘traditional’ wing-play, the style that Matthews helped pioneer, but in doing precisely what Matthews removed from his game: attempting to cut inside to deadly effect. Robben is more than happy to do it all himself if he has to as well as being capable of producing moments of pure magic such as his volley that did for the last English opponents he faced in the knock-out stages of the Champions League back in 2010… (The video below is great because it also shows the Bayern move before the goal, with Robben cutting in and attempting to shoot.)
Having already overcome one former club Real Madrid, knocking out Casillas, Ramos and Alonso who had beaten him in the World Cup Final and Mourinho (a former manager of his) who had beaten him in the Champions League Final, the script seems written for Robben, like Matthews, to finally have his cup final moment.
In his way of course stands another former club of his: Chelsea. With a depleted defensive line and midfield due to suspension as well as players coming back in who may not yet be fully fit (similar can be said of Bayern of course), Chelsea may be hard pressed to contain Robben but if they are to win they will need to do more than tightly mark him as players started to do to Matthews. Formations and tactics have changed in many ways over the last sixty odd years and to deal with Robben they will need to take a leaf from Borussia Dortmund’s book and cover well, trying never to allow him a situation where he only has one man to beat whilst not leaving gaps elsewhere in the defense (no mean feat of course!) or else hope and pray that come Saturday night it doesn’t quite happen for the Dutchman leaving him perhaps to wonder, however briefly, whether a different approach to his game may have led to more overall chances for his team. Of course now I have written that he will probably win it with a cross from the byline!
Finally, it would be criminal not to mention that Blackpool themselves have a rather important match this Saturday as well. Best of luck to them in the Championship play-off Final! “Suuuper, super Kev… Suuuper, super Kev… Suuuper, super Kev! Super Kevin Phillips!!!”