Football: Catalan clouds over Van Gaal

Norman Fox hears calls in Barcelona for Bobby Robson to return to power
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The Independent Online
They extended their lead at the top of the Spanish first division with a stunning 3-2 victory at Real Madrid last night.t They have Brazilian players who will illuminate the World Cup. They can play like a dream in domestic competition but have not won a single match in this season's Champions' League. Barcelona are the enigma of Europe.

The irony is that should they lose to the group leaders Dynamo Kiev in the Nou Camp on Wednesday, their coach Louis Van Gaal, who took Ajax to three Dutch championships and the 1995 European Cup, could find himself being offered a subservient role to his predecessor, Bobby Robson, who at the moment is a sort of technical director-foreman.

Robson's demotion came about because the Catalan press, and some of the club's fans and hierarchy, believed that because he failed to get the team ahead of Real Madrid in last season's Spanish championship he lost authority. He was also criticised for the team's alleged lack of flair. As with England, Barcelona could soon be wondering why they underestimated Robson.

After Van Gaal's side lost 3-0 in Kiev, 3-2 in Newcastle and drew 2-2 with PSV Eindhoven at the Nou Camp, similar criticism began to be levelled. There is even a quiet campaign to have Robson reinstated, though he is keeping a diplomatic silence.

Robson could be forgiven a slight bitterness, because many of the current players arrived as a result of a pounds 40m summer spending spree. The idea was to provide Van Gaal with a fresh platform on which to build a European Cup-winning team. That platform is dangerously close to collapsing and, even if they win this week the situation is not likely to improve much in the last game of the Champions' League against PSV on 10 December.

Fifa have designated the Confederation Cup in Saudi Arabia as an official international competition so Brazil will be entitled to call together all of their foreign- based players for almost a month.

Ronald Koeman, the Dutch former Barcelona player, is one who thinks Barca may have chosen the wrong man. "Van Gaal is not like Bobby Robson - he has one idea of how the team should play and does not change. He says he is satisfied with the way they are playing but the European performances have been criticised by everyone. Robson was much more adaptable. Louis will soon know what it is like to be coach at Barca when you are under pressure." Koeman points out that virtually all of the backroom staff are Dutch. They got a hint of the pressure when 90,000 turned up to see Van Gaal's first training session.

Lack of goalscoring power is the main criticism. Although Oscar and Luis Enrique have looked sharp in league matches, only Enrique has scored more than once in Europe this season. There was no sympathy for Van Gaal after Kiev because although goalkeeper Ruud Hesp was sent off after 64 minutes, Barcelona were two down at the time. In fact their European confidence had been shaken when Faustino Asprilla rattled in three goals against them at St James' Park. Severalplayers admitted that Van Gaal had confused them with his complicated tactics. This from a manager who continually criticises British players for not thinking for themselves.

Van Gaal was brought in despite Robson's success in organising a team good enough to win the Cup Winners' Cup. Above all the club's president, Josep Nunez, demanded that Barca finished this season as champions and gave a good account of themselves in Europe. As Robson discovered, comparative success is not enough. Barcelona have had 12 coaches in 19 years since Nunez became president. Unlucky 13 for Van Gaal?

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