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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

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