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GRAHAME L. JONES / ON SOCCER

Good thing they don't have a no-return policy

Arjen Robben is back for Bayern Munich, Ronaldinho leaves AC Milan for Brazil's Flamengo, and Gianluigi Buffon is in the nets again for Juventus.

January 15, 2011|Grahame L. Jones | On Soccer
  • Bayern's Arjen Robben (front) vies for the ball with Wolfsburg's Marcel Schaefer during a Bundesliga match on Saturday.
Bayern's Arjen Robben (front) vies for the ball with Wolfsburg's… (Jochen Luebke / EPA )

Saturday afternoon in Wolfsburg, Germany, home of VfL Wolfsburg, the 2009 Bundesliga champion.

The winter break is over and Bayern Munich is in town, ready to launch the second half of its 2010-2011 season. Coach Louis van Gaal and the 22-time German champions are intent on closing ground on league leader Borussia Dortmund, which holds a 17-point lead over fifth-place Bayern.

But there is a second story line at work, one every bit as compelling as the Munich team's improbable quest.

Saturday's game marks the return of Dutch winger Arjen Robben, playing his first competitive match since the Netherlands' loss to Spain in the World Cup final in South Africa on July 11.

A thigh injury has kept the player known as "the glass man" sidelined for six months, but now he is back.

This past week, in fact, has been all about returns of one sort or another.

Ronaldinho, for instance, returned to Brazil, leaving AC Milan for Flamengo. David Beckham keeps trying to return to the English Premier League with Tottenham Hotspur. Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon returned to play for Juventus after also having been sidelined by injury since the World Cup.

And then there was the other sort of return, the financial kind.

The directors of VfL Wolfsburg know that one well. In 2007, they bought a young Bosnian striker named Edin Dzeko for $6 million. Ten days ago, they sold him to Manchester City for $43 million.

Profits of that sort bring a smile even in the frosty chill of a Wolfsburg winter. Dzeko, 24, made it possible, of course, scoring 66 goals in 111 games for Wolfsburg and finishing last season as the top marksman in Germany.

The Bosnian was also shrewd enough to say early on that he liked the look of Manchester City. What he probably liked even more was the extraordinarily deep pockets of Sheik Mansour bin Zayed. In only 30 months, the sheik has spent $500 million buying players for Manchester City.

With Dzeko gone, VfL Wolfsburg had reason to fear Bayern Munich on Saturday, but it managed a 1-1 tie at the Volkswagen Arena, scoring a late goal to thwart the Bavarian team, much to Van Gaal's displeasure.

"We have to prepare ourselves to accept second place," he said, conceding that Bayern's title chances are fading fast. It is now 16 points behind Dortmund with 16 games to play.

Robben, 27 next Sunday, came on after 25 minutes for injured French winger Franck Ribery.

"Robben is very important player for us," Van Gaal said before the season resumed, "as important as [Lionel] Messi is for Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo is for Real Madrid."

But the flying Dutchman has warned Bayern fans not to stack all their chips on his No. 10 jersey.

"Let's bear in mind that I've not played for six months," he said. "It won't simply be the case that everything's fine again just because I'm on the field. It's just not as easy as that."

Dzeko, meanwhile, made his debut for Manchester City on Saturday as Coach Roberto Mancini's team defeated visiting Wolverhampton Wanderers, 4-3, to leapfrog Manchester United and move into first place in the Premier League.

It was Argentina's Carlos Tevez, not Dzeko, who made the difference with two goals.

Another South American making news was Ronaldinho, a two-time world player of the year and 2002 World Cup winner. At 30, with his services no longer indispensible at AC Milan — and with the Galaxy not on his radar — he swapped the red and black of Milan for the black and red of Flamengo.

His emotional welcome home Wednesday by a Rio de Janeiro crowd of 20,000-plus had him wiping away tears, and he promised to regain his national team place and help Brazil win the World Cup for a sixth time in 2014 when it stages the tournament.

"It was a marvelous feeling," he said. "I didn't expect such a big party."

Back in Italy, "Gigi" Buffon, who suffered a back injury in Italy's opening game at the South Africa World Cup, finally got back into the nets for Juventus in a 2-0 Italian Cup victory over Catania in Turin on Thursday.

A World Cup winner with the Azzurri in 2006, Buffon, 33 this month, was delighted to return and joked about the one difficult save he had to make. "If I hadn't got that one, I would've retired on the spot," he said.

Ryan Giggs, 37, is not retiring and could make his 600th league appearance for Manchester United on Sunday against Tottenham Hotspur in London. Signed at 13, he has been a first-team fixture for two decades.

"Ryan is an incredible human being," United Coach Alex Ferguson said. "He defies logic. There is no other player who has done what he's done or is ever likely to do it."

Watching from the White Hart Lane stands will be Beckham, Giggs' former teammate, and if he wonders what might have been, well, he's only human.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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