Sneijder and Robben Return To Madrid

By a most exquisite – and, for some, excruciatingly painful – coincidence, tonight's events in the Estadio Bernabéu could well be shaped by two players who left Real Madrid last summer with the label "Not wanted on voyage" around their necks. Now the supporters of Los Merengues must put up with the possibility of either Arjen Robben or Wesley Sneijder becoming the pivotal figure of the 2010 Champions Cup final.

The two Dutchmen would walk into most sides, and are scheduled to feature in their national side's World Cup campaign next month. But whatever they brought to the Spanish club, it was not enough to satisfy Florentino Pérez, Real's president. Intent on building a new squad of súper galácticos in the summer of 2009, Pérez bought Kaká, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema for an aggregate outlay of about €240m, while clearing space in the dressing room by letting Robben go to Bayern Munich and Sneijder to Internazionale.

Sneijder, a product of the Ajax academy, he joined the Amsterdam club at the age of seven and was 17 when Ronald Koeman gave him his first-team debut. In five seasons he made 125 appearances in the Eredivisie, scoring 44 goals and earning covetous glances from many of Europe's biggest clubs. It was Real who paid €27m for his signature in 2007, and he was welcomed to the Bernabéu with the gift of David Beckham's old No23 shirt.

In his first Spanish league match he scored the winner against Atlético Madrid, and over the course of two seasons, first under Fabio Capello and then under Juande Ramos, he made 52 league appearances and scored 11 goals. But it was not enough, and he became a victim of the clear-out which enabled Pérez to remodel his squad. Sold to Inter for €15m, he settled quickly into another rebuilt side, making the bullets for Diego Milito under José Mourinho's supervision.

Robben, had an initial senior season with Groningen, his local club, before spending two prolific years with Guus Hiddink at PSV and three under Mourinho at Chelsea, where injuries restricted him to 67 appearances and 15 goals in the Premier League.

Although his debut at Stamford Bridge was delayed by a broken metatarsal in a pre-season match, he was voted the league's player of the month for November 2004, in which he made his first appearance. Six months later, when Chelsea collected their first title for 50 years, he was once again out of action, and a reputation for too readily succumbing to injury had already begun to dim his aura in England, as did a perceived talent for diving and provoking opponents.

Arriving at the Bernabéu for a fee of €35m along with Sneijder and a third Dutchman, Royston Drenthe, Robben won the Spanish league under Capello and managed 50 league matches and 11 goals over the two seasons. But last summer, like Sneijder, he was deemed dispensable to Pérez's project and sold to Bayern for €25m.

Again, the move was entirely to his benefit and to that of his new club. Coming on at half-time on his debut, the day after signing his contract, he scored two goals in a victory over Wolfsburg, the defending champions. There would also be important Champions League goals against Fiorentina in the last 16 and, with a spectacular volley, against Manchester United in the quarter-finals. He scored as Bayern beat Werder Bremen in the German cup final last Saturday and his Bundesliga success represents his fifth national championship in eight seasons and four countries – a remarkable record.

Very different in their skills, instincts and temperaments, Robben and Sneijder represent the continuing ability of the Netherlands' football schools to produce young players of extreme virtuosity, great versatility and a seemingly innate feeling for the game's angles and rhythms. A lethal Sneijder pass, a venomous Robben shot – either could be decisive tonight, in the city that spurned them.

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