Football Club Barcelona is not in the best state to go into the Champions League semi final with Manchester United. If you regularly read the Spanish sports press you will know that Barça is a club in crisis. It may also seem that the press always says the same, at least when Barça are not beating the pants off everyone.
However, over the last couple of weeks the situation has reached a point where it feels as though the club is going to explode with one more bad result. Before last week’s goalless draw with Getafe president Joan Laporta appealed to a group of supporters that Barça “are not as bad as all that.” He went on to tell the fans that they should not fall into the trap of listening to journalists who pretended to be on Barça’s side but in fact had other interests.
His arguments might have been valid but the anxious aggressive tone that he used to make them did little to convince the fans, and after Barça once again missed an opportunity to close the gap on Real Madrid by failing to beat Getafe, some of the crowd protested by calling for Laporta’s resignation.
Later in the week, one of Laporta’s directors, Xavier Sala-i-Martin, claimed that two or three of the injured players were not actually injured but had been separated from the team due to their endless partying. He mentioned no names but everyone interpreted his accusation to be aimed at Ronaldinho and Deco. Txiki Begiristain and Frank Rijkaard later claimed there was no truth in Sala-i-Martin’s suggestion but they were pretty slow to deny the story. Deco later stated that he was considering legal action, and Sala-i-Martin has since apologized to the players.
Then on Thursday the news broke of Ronaldinho’s imminent transfer to AC Milan, as he is injured he is unlikely ever to play again for the blaugranas. Things have got so bad with the Brazilian that few culés seem to care that much, a sign that the fans believe the stories of his excesses. It is a sad end to his time at Barça where he became the best player in the world and threatened for a while to become the greatest of all time. It is a crying shame that genius is so often wasted in this way.
Barça’s hopes against United now lie with Leo Messi who could also become one of the greatest ever if he can only avoid the persistant injuries he has suffered so far in his short career. Messi returned to the team to play 25 minutes last weekend but couldn’t save Barça from dropping more points at Recreativo. The other player who could win it for Barça is Samuel Eto’o who scored twice at Recreativo and now has 14 goals in just 14 league games this season. The other forward will probably be out-of-form Thierry Henry though fans recently voted in favour of 17-year-old Bojan Krkic staying in the team. Bojan looks set to become another great player and has already scored ten goals this season. Henry meanwhile has annoyed fans with his excuses for his poor form: either he is playing with an injury, playing out of position or missing his daughter. Rumours persist that he will also leave the club this summer.
Barça have also had injury problems in midfield. Deco hasn’t played since the second leg against Celtic at the start of March, Andres Iniesta, who has been one of the most consistent players, has a knee injury but should make it in time for the first game with United, while Toure Yaya has been playing bravely with a back injury which requires him to have cortisone injections, but his form has dropped considerably and he does not protect the defence so much. If Iniesta plays he will be partnered by Xavi Hernandez, and the two of them on their day can outpass any midfield in the world, their physical presence, however, is not so great and with Toure struggling with the injury they may have problems to control United.
In defence Barça will have to make do without captain Carles Puyol for the first leg at Camp Nou. Puyol’s recent form has been excellent and he will be missed. Rijkaard will have to choose between Lilian Thuram, who is not so quick these days, and Rafa Marquez, who has also been struggling with injuries recently, to partner Gabi Milito in the centre. Gianluca Zambrotta has improved after a poor start to the season at right back, but at left back the recent form of Eric Abidal has been abysmal and has led to fans calling for Sylvinho to start. Whoever it is will be in for a uncomfortable time against Cristiano Ronaldo. To add to Barça’s woes Victor Valdés in goal has not been at his best in recent games, perhaps affected by all the recent instability at the club.
Nevertheless, despite all their problems you would be foolish to write Barça off. This is one last chance to save a very disappointing season and in the Champions League they have generally performed better despite an awful 30 minutes against Schalke 04. Victor Valdés will be hoping to add to his impressive record of seven clean sheets in nine games in this season’s tournament, and player for player they can match United. In Messi, Eto’o and Iniesta they have three potential match winners; United fans will no doubt remember that it took just one great performance from Kaka to end their hopes last season.
Nicholas Aldam writes on the Barcelona blog.