A dismal season the previous year culminating in an embarrassing defeat to an arch rival, a motion of no confidence against the club president during pre season and a rookie manager taking over the reins – for fans of most football clubs this would seem like a disaster, but for us die hard ‘cules’, it was part and parcel of being a Barcelona fan. In the 13 or so years that I have supported this great club, I have seen enough to remain calm and composed when something went wrong. From the glory days of the ‘Dream Team’ with the likes of Josep Guardiola, Ronald Koeman, Gheorghe Hagi et al to the disappointment of the disastrous defeat to Milan in the final of the Champions League, from the mesmerizing skills of Ronaldo to the sad departure of Luis Figo, from the orgasmic high of the double under Rijkaard to the embarrassing low of the ‘paella’ against Madrid, as cules, we have seen it all. So when Juan Laporta, still smarting from the defeat against Real Madrid, announced that Josep Guardiola i Sala would replace Frank Rijkaard at the end of the season, most of us were curious rather than apprehensive. After all Guardiola was a club legend, a Catalan from Santpedor in the heart of Catalonia and who better to steer a sinking ship than the man who epitomized all the values of FC Barcelona. It was the return of the prodigal son.
The Early Going
Guardiola got down to work immediately with the priority being the unenviable task of sorting out a fractured dressing room, low on confidence and high on indiscipline. His first task as manager was to get rid of the ‘trouble makers’ which meant that Ronaldinho was packed off to Milan, Deco was sold to Chelsea and Edmilson made his way to Villareal while Samuel Eto’o was given a choice – my way or the highway. The departures also meant the addition of new faces to the squad with the likes of Dani Alves, Seydou Keita, Gerard Pique and Aleksandr Hleb making their way to the Camp Nou. It was the beginning of a new era at Barcelona.
The season got off to the worst possible start with a defeat away to lowly Numancia and the media again questioning whether Guardiola was the right man for the job. Guardiola and Barcelona responded in the only way that mattered – winning.
The Joy Ride Begins
The defeat to Numancia would serve as a minor blotch on what would turn out to be an almost perfect first half of the season. Barcelona would not lose again and after 19 games, would go on to break the record for most points at the half way mark. The run included a 6-1 destruction of Atletico Madrid at home and a 2-0 humbling of Real Madrid. It was a remarkable achievement for a team that was said to be disjointed and stood no chance of winning the Liga. The Camp Nou was buzzing with expectation once again and the cules were smiling. On the pitch, Xavi and Iniesta marshaled the mid field with aplomb while Messi and Alves scripted their own symphony on the right. The mercurial Frenchman was back to his best and our very own Cameroonian hitman was back doing what he does best – scoring ‘golazos’. The defense looked stable with Puyol finding an able ally in Pique, Yaya Toure lending the mid field some strength and Victor Valdes looking solid between the posts. The juggernaut was rolling and the rest of the teams just watched helplessly as Barca rolled past. But just as the league looked a foregone conclusion, the unthinkable happened – Barca faltered. With defeats against Espanyol and Atletico, the gap suddenly looked much smaller. Madrid, under Juande Ramos, were beginning to play ugly yet effective football and had strung together an amazing run. Madrid had won 17 of their last 18 games and going into the Clasico at the Bernebeu, had brought the gap down to just four points. With the title hinging on the result of the Clasico, the biggest match on the planet got even bigger.
The Mother of All Clasicos
The Madrid press smelt blood. AS declared “Barca: Do Panic” while Marca went a step further and said, “Barca have the willies”. And for once, one had to agree with them. In a matter of 3 weeks, Barcelona’s lead had gone from 12 points to four. It even prompted the pro Catalan publication El Mundo Deportivo to plead “Enough already!” The knives were already out when Barca took to the field on a sultry night in May and when Madrid took the lead through a Gonzalo Higuain header, one could almost hear the knives being sharpened. After just 4 minutes though Barca equalized. Henry collected a beautifully weighed ball from Messi and coolly slotted it into the corner beyond Iker Casillas. It was the fillip that Barca needed and they pushed forward with intent, led by an inspired Thierry Henry. By the 35th minute, Barca were 3-1 up and cruising towards victory. Madrid made a slight charge right after the half time break with Sergio Ramos heading in to make it 3-2 but that was just delaying the inevitable. Henry scored another to make it 4-2 before Messi and Pique completed the rout. The ghost of 2008 had been buried and the Madridistas had been silenced. It was a comprehensive victory under tremendous pressure and one that all but guaranteed the league title for Barcelona. Madrid would go on to lose to Villareal the next week, handing the title to Barcelona and Barcelona would wrap up the domestic double with a comfortable 4-1 victory over Athletic Bilbao at the Mestalla in a pulsating Copa Del Rey final. All roads now led to Rome and a highly anticipated clash with the European Champions.
The Final Frontier
It was billed as the clash of the Titans. A straight forward shoot out to be crowned the Champions of Europe. A battle between the wise old man of football and the young Spanish upstart, between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Barcelona went into the game high on confidence, having won everything on offer in Spain, but low on resources. A grueling campaign had taken its toll on the players with some injured and others suspended. The epic clash against Chelsea in the semi final of the Champions League had proven to be quite expensive. Barcelona went into the game with a host of absentees. Dani Alves and Eric Abidal were suspended while Rafael Marquez had suffered a horrific knee injury leaving Guardiola with the difficult task of cobbling up a makeshift defense for the final. It meant that Yaya Toure would once again take his place next to Gerard Pique in the center of defense while ‘El Capitan’ would shift to the right. It also meant that the grand old man of the Barcelona squad, Sylvinho, would get one more shot at glory, sliding into the role left vacant by Abidal’s absence. Adding to the woes was the fitness of Iniesta and Henry, both of whom started despite being injured. For the first 10 minutes, the Barcelona defense showed why most of the cules were apprehensive. Ronaldo was creating problems and it looked as if it was going to be a long night for the Blaugrana. And then it happened. A moment of hesitation from Michael Carrick allowed Iniesta to burst past him and slide a lovely ball to Samuel Eto’o who turned Nemanja Vidic inside out and coolly slotted it past an advancing Van Der Sar. It was a beautiful goal, one that shifted the momentum towards Barcelona and from then onwards the Blaugrana were in the driver’s seat. The Barcelona mid field went into lockdown mode, completely outplaying their English counter parts. Even then with a slender one goal lead, there was always the fear of getting caught out. All that was laid to rest when the shortest man on the pitch jumped higher than everyone around him to score off a beautifully placed header. Lionel Messi had outplayed his Portuguese rival and now had a goal to show for his efforts. One could go into the tactical complexities involved in the game but let us not let such trivial matters take our attention away from the brilliant moment, the moment when Carles Puyol lifted FC Barcelona’s third European Cup and their second in 4 years. It was a remarkable achievement, the first treble by a Spanish team, by a Barcelona team destined for greatness.
The Future is Bright
These are exciting times for the Camp Nou faithful. The current season has already seen the club add three more trophies to take their tally to an unprecedented six trophies. The current squad has the potential to go on and achieve greatness. The media has already declared them the best team in the history of the club and while I believe that the legendary team of the early 90’s was the best, the current squad has the talent to form a dynasty of their own. With Guardiola at the helm and a brilliant academy churning out talented youngsters, the future certainly looks bright for FC Barcelona. The Camp Nou is bristling with expectation once again.