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Dec 12, 2006

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Dec 7, 2006

Barcelona's players woke up to a downpour yesterday morning, proving that the rain in Spain does not fall only on the plain. The night before, the European champions sent out a message that, despite taking qualification for the next phase to the wire, they are alive and well in the Champions League.

Barcelona, moreover, may be about to prosper. Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi are yet to return from injury, while Ronaldinho is in such form that Eidur Gudjohnsen left the Nou Camp saying: "One of these days he will make the ball talk."

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Even by Ronaldinho's standards his was an exceptional performance, capped by a goal that had his colleagues talking animatedly about an hour after the final whistle. Seeing that Werder Bremen's players were going to jump in the wall at a free-kick, Ronaldinho struck the ball under them and Barcelona had their breakthrough in the 13th minute.

"It is fantastic how clever the guy is," Gudjohnsen said of Ronaldinho. "He seems ready for every situation and the bigger the game, the more he can handle it. He saw that they were going to jump. What he said in the dressing room afterwards was the two really big guys in the wall wouldn't jump so he put it under the smaller ones. He's a great player and I guess that makes him psychic. When you play with him and see what he does with a ball, nothing surprises me any more. One of these days, he will make the ball talk."

Giovanni van Bronckhorst was equally enthusiastic about the Brazilian: "He knew exactly what he was doing. It was all pre-meditated although I have never seen him try it before, in training or matches. He thought what the wall would do and he pulled it off. It's amazing, but that's what you get from the best player in the world."

Stabilised by their victory over Werder, or 'tranquil' as manager Frank Rijkaard put it, Barcelona can now relax and consider the next step in the defence of their title.

Gudjohnsen, however, was not about to call his new club favourites, especially as he knows how that remark would go down at his old club.

"I am sure that Chelsea anticipated us going through," Gudjohnsen said. "I don't know who are favourites at this point. We are just glad to get through and we will worry about that when we see the draw."

"Before the game, the manager just said to enjoy it. What happens, happens but he said to imagine the people who dream of playing in front of 100,000 fans and to experience a fantastic night like this. For me, playing for Barcelona has been everything I dreamed of and more. You can understand why every footballer in the world dreams of playing for Barcelona. Everything about the club, the stadium, the fans, the build-up - and the best player in the world."

One subject that went unsaid was the occasional defensive lapse and whoever draws Barcelona in the last 16 will hold onto the hope that if Diego and Miroslav Klose can work openings in the Nou Camp, so can they.

Dec 6, 2006

They may have scraped through their group, but it won't be easy to take the Champions League trophy away from Barcelona.
On the brink of making unwanted history as the first holders of the Champions League not to emerge unscathed from the group stages, the challenge Barcelona faced this evening should not be underestimated. Up against them were the free-scoring Bundesliga leaders, who were so unlucky to be eliminated by Juventus last season, were denied victory by a last-minute Barça goal earlier in this campaign, and showed in the second half tonight - albeit when it was too late - why they'll now be difficult to beat in the Uefa Cup. Yet in the first half Barça made the team in green and white look more like Yeovil than Werder Bremen, and in the process installed themselves as Champions League favourites once more.

What makes this achievement even more impressive is that Barça were missing two of their first-choice forwards, Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto'o. Consider that loss of penetration and firepower for a second. How would Manchester United cope without Cristiano Ronaldo and Louis Saha? Or Chelsea without Andriy Shevchenko and Didier Drogba? Or Werder without Diego and Miroslav Klose, for that matter?

But Barça have world-class replacements for this pair in Ludovic Giuly and Eidur Gudjohnsen. In England, Gudjohnsen was known as an inside-forward, a guy who could either play off the striker or as a central midfielder. But at the Nou Camp, in Eto'o's absence, Frank Rijkaard has made him the pinnacle of the attack, as he is for Iceland, and with nine goals already this season he's proven his versatility. Giuly, meanwhile, was excellent, providing constant width as an outlet for Ronaldinho's left-to-right passes all night. It was just a shame he somehow missed from six yards after Gudjohnsen had almost scored the goal of the tournament with his jinking run through four defenders.

Barça's start to this game was similar to the relentlessness that the Australian cricket team showed against England in the early hours of this morning. Like the Aussies, Barça exerted such a stranglehold on the opposition that their thoughts were fully occupied with defending, rather than on how they could attack. Werder's mindset, usually so positive, became like England's: how to save the game, rather than how to impose themselves on it. It's partly because of their brilliance going forward that Barça are so miserly at the back - they've conceded less than a goal a game in La Liga this season - and so, where England scored just 28 runs in the morning session, Werder didn't manage their first shot until the 37th minute tonight. And Naldo's strike was off target.

Of course, just as the catalyst for Australia's success was Shane Warne, it was Barça's go-to man, Ronaldinho, who set them on their way with a moment of pure genius.

Ronaldinho - video powered by Metacafe
For those who think his free-kick - which was impudently slid under the wall as the Bremen blockade jumped en masse - was a fluke, think back to how the same player embarrassed David Seaman in the 2002 World Cup quarter-finals with an equally unusual set-piece. Barça fans will have recognised tonight's trick - Rivaldo used to perform it frequently during his spell at the club.

And yet as happy as the Catalans will feel when they awaken to triumphant headlines, they're a long way from repeating tonight's celebrations in Athens in May. The very nature of the knockout stages dictates this, with little to choose between the top dozen or so teams. Last year there was such a paucity of goals - 19 in 13 games from the quarter-finals onwards - that any side could beat any other in a two-legged tie.

For now though, Barça are happy just to have such concerns. The only history they can now make is as the first holders to retain the Champions League crown, rather than as the first holders to lose it at the first hurdle. And the tournament itself is the richer for that.
Highlights of First Half

Barcelona 2 - 0 Berdem Bremen - video powered by Metacafe

Dec 5, 2006

"To Be Or Not To Be, That is the question"

The famous dialogue from 'Hamlet' might be the best way to describe Barcelona's situation in the Champions league. For all their artistry and talent of this great bunch of entertainers this will be their moment of truth. Bremen might not be an easy task but Barca have no other choice.

Emboldened Bremen face champions teetering on the brink

Defending champions Barcelona take on Werder Bremen for a place in the Champions League last 16 tonight.

The knock-out phase of the Champions League is meant to start in mid-February but at Camp Nou this evening the European Cup holders Barcelona have to win just to make it into the hat next week. Werder Bremen have arrived in Catalonia two points ahead of Barça in Group A and a draw will see the German side through alongside Chelsea. For Barcelona that scenario is unthinkable, but it is all many can think of.

"We don't want to think about that," was Frank Rijkaard response to the proposition yesterday afternoon. "We are preparing to win the game. It doesn't help to think about losing, it doesn't cross our minds. We have to go out there and do our jobs and beat Bremen, who are a very strong team. We are only thinking about completing our job and we don't want to think negatively. We've had a lot of success, they are a good team. It will be an interesting game."

Rijkaard's choice of adjective was interesting in itself. The agenda can change with a home win, of course, but at this juncture, seven months on from overcoming 10-man Arsenal in Paris, the thought of Barcelona being the first club to retain the European Cup since Milan in 1990 against Benfica is not dominating the Catalan mind.

A different statistic is rather more conspicuous: that if Barça do not win they will become the first reigning champions not to make it past the group stage since the advent of the Champions League group system in season 1992-93. In such circumstances qualification for the last 32 of the Uefa Cup could not be considered an achievement.

A repeat of last season's meeting at Camp Nou, when Werder were beaten 3-1 - adding to a 2-0 Barcelona triumph in Bremen - would make the current bout of tension look unjustified. Ronaldinho scored in both of those matches and, having been rested for the 1-1 away draw with Levante at the weekend, returns to spearhead an attack that will be missing not only Samuel Eto'o but also Lionel Messi.

Messi scored an 89th-minute equaliser in Bremen in September, otherwise Barça would already be eliminated, but is now another long-term injury. "I'm going to play the same way I always do," said Ronaldinho yesterday, "putting more pressure on my shoulders won't help my game. Only a win will do, so the responsibility is squarely on us."

In what Werder may call mind games, Rijkaard spoke of an "added motivation - that Bremen have said they are better than last year. They have pressured themselves."

Bremen are leaders of the Bundesliga, and observers have noted the height advantage the German team will have again and they know all about the pressure of close encounters. Last season they were two minutes away from dismissing Juventus to reach the last eight when their keeper, Tim Wiese, spilled a straightforward shot that Emerson then tapped into the empty net. That made it 4-4 on aggregate and it was Juve, on away goals, who went on to meet Arsenal.

Wiese remains in the Werder goal and the 24-year-old partly redeemed his reputation in the 1-0 win over Chelsea that has teed up this evening's intriguing meeting. Routinely described as "self-assured", Wiese said: "I'm certain we'll win 1-0 and reach the last 16. Of course the pundits and fans have labelled us outsiders, but we see ourselves on a par with Barça and believe we have a good chance."

It will be of no consolation to the participating teams but whoever fails to progress, at least the Uefa Cup will be enhanced.

Video :First Leg at Bremen

Bremen 1 - Barcelona 1 (Leo Messi) - video powered by Metacafe

Dec 4, 2006

It has to be the worst performance by this talented Barcelona side to date. Even in the pre Ronaldinho season, I cannot see a match being played like this. It seems none of the players realized that Football is played for winning. The usual excuse has to be "they might not had Ronaldinho in the match neither they had Messi, Eto or saviola", but then this is not Chelsea or Real Madrid you are playing. The worse thing from yesterday's match is the attitude shown by players. I always believed that the match against Levante shud have been a trailer for the fans ahead of Bremen clash. But seeing their performance its plain clear that 99% chance are there to see this side go out of Champions League.

Dec 1, 2006

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