Thursday, June 08, 2006

Més que un club

Let’s begin at the beginning. It’s almost three years since Joan Laporta, a rank outsider in the Barcelona presidential race, was elected on the back of promising to sign David Beckham. Becks never donned a blaugrana jersey, instead he went to Real Madrid and Barça signed Ronaldinho, who, judging by his performances for PSG, was all hat and no cattle. On the face of it, he was the last player FCB needed, another party boy for Patrick Kluivert to go for pints with.

For a while it was a case of the more things changed, the more they stayed the same. Barcelona went from the sublime (‘dinho’s goal against Villarreal) to the ridiculous (the now infamous 5-1 defeat at Malaga) with some shockingly lackluster performances in between. By Christmas Frank Rijkaard seemed destined for the sack and as Laporta and Sandro Rossel struggled with the enormity of the task before them, things were as bad as ever at the Camp Nou. The team was a shambles and the season was already being written off as nothing short of a disaster.

Fast-forward two and a half years, to Thursday morning, to BCN Airport, to Carles Puyol and Frank Rijkaard holding aloft the European Cup, masters of all they surveyed. Two weeks previously Barcelona had won their second straight La Liga Championship. The best team in Spain was now the best in Europe.

It’s been nearly three weeks since I rattled off the first few paragraphs and only now, on my flight to Atlanta, do I have any time to finish.

So where were we…

If you were being uncharitable you might say that Barcelona won La Liga this year almost by default. Real Madrid were a shambles, Valencia were too inconsistant down the stretch despite beating Barça 1-0 at the Mestella and looking like they would make a real go of it. Villarreal were never likely to repeat last seasons heroics considering their involvement in the Champions League. Sevilla too were distracted by European competition and only belatedly made a run at fourth place. Osasuna, who did come fourth, over-achived massively with a small, well coached squad but were never serious challangers.

That said, despite a mid-season wobble which saw them knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Saragossa, Barça were far and away the best team in La Liga, playing sublime, flowing, attacking and exciting football that saw them sweep past everyone bar the troublesome Athletico Madrid, who ended their winning run at 14 games, one shy of Real Madrid’s record.

In Europe they were as solid as they were driven. Though they may have been 20 minutes away from defeat in Paris and indeed I lamented more than 1nce that “they’re not going to score”, their organisation and faith in themselves; not hoofing the ball, not abandoning the tactics that had gotten them to the final, never deserted them. It was the introduction of Henrik Larsson that changed the game. For all Barcelona’s elaborate passing and possession they needed something more direct to break down a stuborne Arsenal defence that had kept a record number of clean sheets in the Champions League, albeit with Jens Lehmann in goal and not Captain Calamity Almunia, who, whatever of Samuel Eto’o equaliser, was wholy responsible for Belletti’s (Belletti!) winner.

Brief aside...

The in-flight movie is Failure to Launch. It’s followed by Harrison Ford’s Firewall, where his wife, his family, get attacked by the internet or a router or something. This is going to be a long flight.

With everyone firmly fixated on the World Cup in Germany pehaps the European Cup victory hasn’t gotten as much press as it might. That said, if Arsenal had held on, I have no doubt we’d still be hearing about it from the tabs across the water (and the one I work for in Ballsbridge). So perhaps it’s better to have taken some time on this and not posted it the day after (this is also a convient excuse for not getting it done until now)

I’m now about a third of the way to A-town and I fancy a bit of a sleep. I’ll post this when I hit Hartsfield (okay so maybe the hotel...)

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