After Sunday’s stale draw away at the Reyno de Navarra, the sharks seem to be circling around the career of Frank Rijkaard, whose chances of survival as head coach at the Camp Nou rest, according to the Spanish press, on the performance of the team in the next three games.
If Rijkaard were to depart, two of his fellow Oranjes have been named as possible candidates for the post. The criticism leveled the way of Rijkaard is particularly intense after he was handed a hefty wad of cash to incorporate into the squad the expensive signings of Yaya Toure, Thierry Henry, Eric Abidal and Gabi Milito during the summer transfer window, signings which appear to have compounded, rather than alleviated, the team’s worries.
With so many top players to choose from (let us not forget Bojan and Giovanni, now firmly established in the first-team squad, if not in the first-team), the dilemma faced by Rijkaard could be said to be analogous to that of the man trying to complete a high-specification, multi-colour two-thousand piece puzzle, when his experience covers only smaller and less colourful jigsaws.
The matches in question, not unlike the three crucial games that would apparently seal the fate of Martin Jol, are already loaded with significance. First, Los Cules take the first step in their attempt to regain the Champions League trophy won in 2005 (who would have thought that a trophyless season was to follow?), facing French champions and four-time quarter-finalists Lyon, who, after a slow start, have regained momentum in Ligue 1, culminating in a 5-1 defeat of Metz on Saturday.
The game will be particularly fascinating fare as it will offer up a direct comparison with Real Madrid inasmuch as the Spanish champions have faced their French counterparts on four occasions in the last two years without notching up a single victory and being comprehensively beaten and out-played on two occasions.
Second, Barça play host to Sevilla, the only team other than Real Madrid to possess a 100% record in this year’s La Liga, and surely a rival to be taken seriously for the league title. Sevilla have won two of the last three meetings between the two teams, including a resounding 3-0 victory in the European Supercup last season.
The third and final fixture comes against Real Zaragoza, again at the Camp Nou. Whilst Zaragoza have had an equally indifferent start to the season (they have drawn two and lost one of their three matches), the form of Aimar has been excellent, and the well-assembled squad should given the azulgranas a run for their money. Indeed, Zaragoza, until the final months of the season, looked possible challengers for a Champions League spot, and are one of the few teams to have a positive record in all competitions against FC Barcelona over the last ten years (won 5, lost 4, drawn 3). However, it should be remembered that none of the league victories for Real Zaragoza have come away from home.
Whilst most sources claim that the players maintain full backing for Rijkaard (despite rumours of player unrest throughout the previous campaign, including the alleged disagreements between Ronaldinho and Eto’o), the reasons for this backing are varied, and do not unilaterally reflect Rijkaard in a positive light.
Indeed, although many players and fans alike laud Rijkaard for his ability to build a team full of talent and gusto, whilst maintaining a team mentality, there are some who believe that the Dutchman has fostered a ‘galactico culture’ at the club, with players such as Messi and Ronaldinho given special treatment (the latter, in particular, exempted from training on numerous occasions). In this vein, it is telling that some journalists write of the players’ desire to keep Rijkaard at the club purely because they have never ‘had it so good’ (translated from a quote in El Mundo Deportivo, ‘nunca lo han tenido tan fácil’).
On Saturday, El Periódico de Catalunya offered a close-up of Rijkaard’s famous eyes which, according to the analysis, betray conspicuous signs of resignation combined with weariness. Whilst the analysis itself may be discounted as spurious, of greater import is the fact that Rijkaard has reached a moment in which such an analysis presents itself as pertinent; i.e. a moment in which journalists will bend over backwards to find negative things to say about the manager.
Furthermore, rumours abound both in the national and the regional press about possible replacements for the current mÃster. There are even claims that yesterday saw the taking place of a meeting between Joan Laporta, the FCB president, and Johan Cruyff, in which the latter, who maintains a huge degree of influence at the club and is remembered fondly by most fans after his exploits both as player and manager (managing the ‘dream team’ in the early nineties and leading the club to four straight league titles as well as the European Cup in ’92), was informally asked to take the reins of the club.
In other channels, the names of Van Basten and Mourinho have been bandied about (though the latter would be an extraordinarily controversial, and unlikely, appointment, given the Chelsea manager’s unpopularity in Catalunya following the Chelsea-Barça confrontations of the last few years), though early reports suggest that Laporta would prefer to appoint an ex-player at the helm.
Whether or not these reports are to be believed in the short-term (my opinion is that Rijkaard will see out the season before departing, possibly for Milan and possibly with a view to a short break from management), there are considerable question marks over the Dutchman’s tenure at the club. Will Bambi-eyes last the whole season, and does he deserve such treatment by the press after the success he has brought to the club in the recent past? Over to you.