Watching Barça trudge off the field at Old Trafford, heads down, a few tears, had a dreadful finality about it. Their race, you have to feel, is well and truly run. As many as ten players from this current squad could be out the door come the summer. And of course there's Frank Rijkaard, who, it emerged today is definitely going. More on both of these later, but first the game itself.
It was fitting that Barça should be the architects of their own downfall on Tuesday night. They've been beating themselves all season so why stop now. One mistake from Gianluca Zambrotta in the fourteenth minute, gifting a pass to Paul Scholes to hammer the ball past Valdes from twenty-five yards out, was enough to see United through. Despite pressing for much of the game, the blaugrana seldom created clear-cut chances. Deco had a few shots, Messi was excellent, constantly running at, indeed through, the United defense, only for nothing to come of it. Bojan had a late chance that he should have buried first time rather than taking a touch, Toure had a few goes too but bar Van Der Sar's save from Messi shortly after Scholes' gol, it never really looked like happening.
It's been six hours or something equally ridiculous since Barcelona have scored a gol, let alone won a match and given that they were facing such a defensively strong team as Manchester United, even without Vidic, the odds were always against them. Sammy, leading the line and playing, if that's the correct term in this instance, was absolutely rubbish. I can't recall him having a single shot on gol and it was no surprise when he was hauled off in favour of Bojan. Henry too was hopeless, creating little. His one chance was a header what was straight at the golkeeper. Barça's only dangerous forward was, predictably, Leo Messi, who was a different class.
At the other end the defense was shaky but aside from Zambrotta's error (Gianluca had an otherwise good game, keeping Ronaldo quiet) they didn't have any hair-tearing moments. Milito was solid, Abidal unspectacular. Puyol was Iron Man and Valdes produced a few sharp saves (he could do nothing at all for the gol).
I watched the game in The Oval on Abbey Street in the company of the Catalans a Dublin crew who were in fine voice and gave it socks (as they say in El Born), going particularly mad for Yaya Toure. They were a great crowd. Gràcies folks.
Onward on downward
Well, no rest for the wicket and all that. It's pick-yourselves-off-the-floor time for the blaugrana with Valencia on Sunday before traveling to Madrid, who will probably have retained La Liga at that stage, on Wednesday. Whether Barça can muster anything at all in the last four games of the season I don't know. Many of the players, as I mentioned in the intro, are slowly shuffling toward the exit. Some or all of the following will be gone by the start of next season: Ronaldinho, Ezquerro, Edmilson, Sylvinho, Zambrotta, Gudjohnsen, Gio dos Santos, Marquez, Pinto, Deco, Thuram and Oleguer. Given that Marc Crosas, currently on loan at Lyon, is about the only Barça B player read to step up to the senior team, they're going to have to sign five or six players at least.
Whoever Barça sign, it won't be Frank Rijkaard who'll be on the bench next season. To no-ones surprise he'll walk away in the summer after five pretty amazing years in charge. Second, first, first, second and now probably third. Add in the Champions League and the fact that his team played the finest futbol I have ever seen, with Ronaldinho, Deco, Eto'o, Messi, Giuly, Xavi and Iniesta in their pomp. He's done a fantastic job and his humility and good grace will be sorely missed. I only hope he can pull one last performance out of this team at the Bernabeu next Wednesday and end on a high (well of sorts). It's the least he deserves.