Football: Catalans rise to Robson

John Carlin sees Barcelona's coach win a major battle in 'war' with his president
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The Independent Online
Had a jumbo jet flown low over the Nou Camp Stadium at the precise moment that the Real Madrid players ran on to the pitch, the roar of the engines would have been drowned out by the jeers of the crowd.

Bobby Robson, who had never before witnessed a spectacle of such demonic intensity, stared up at the tribal throng, at the 115,000 souls who had come to support his Barcelona team, with an expression that combined astonishment, horror and delight.

He knew that his future as coach of the world's biggest football club, the crowning achievement of his 40-year footballing career, rested on how his players performed over the next 90 minutes. If Barcelona lost, or even drew, the fans would turn their rage away from Real Madrid and towards him.

For anything less than a win on Saturday night would have meant Real Madrid subjecting Barcelona to the unspeakable humiliation of all by wrapping up the Spanish championship on enemy territory. As it was, Barcelona won 1-0, thanks to Ronaldo's 32nd league goal of the season, and Real Madrid's lead has been cut to five points with five games to go.

In recent years, Real have had a record of falling at the final hurdle and now, with their coach, Fabio Capello, having already announced he is leaving, nerves are fraught and morale is questionable.

The headlines in yesterday's Barcelona newspaper screamed, "The League is On!" and "We Have A League." Hundreds of Barcelona fans, similarly emboldened, gathered yesterday morning at the Nou Camp to watch their heroes train for Wednesday's big match, the European Cup-Winners' Cup final in Rotterdam against Paris St-Germain. At the sight of Robson they burst into loud applause. "Bobby, we love you!" cried one young man in English. "Stay here. Don't go away!"

Robson glanced up at the young man and smiled. It was a wry smile, a defiant smile. For he knows after Saturday's defeat of the old enemy that his new adversary of recent months, the Barcelona president, is in something of a predicament.

It is an open secret that Josep Luis Nunez, the most powerful man in Catalunia, has persuaded Louis van Gaal, the coach of Ajax Amsterdam, to join Barcelona next season. The general assumption has been that Van Gaal will take over as team coach, and that Robson, who signed a two-year contract with Barcelona last summer, will be kicked upstairs to become a glorified chief scout. In such circumstances, the former England manager, who, at 64 retains the passion for the game of a hyperactive 12-year-old, would almost certainly pledge his troth to one of his many suitors back home.

But what if Barcelona win the Cup-Winners' Cup, the Spanish Cup (they play Betis in the final on 28 June), and, realistically, come second in the Spanish championship and qualify for next season's Champions' League? Were Van Gaal to take over as coach, he, and Nunez, would be under enormous pressure to deliver the European Cup or, at the very least, the Spanish championship. Anything less would provoke a clamour from the public. Nunez's predicament is that next year he is up for re-election as president, and the last thing he wants is for a majority, among the 108,000 club members who vote, to denounce his rashness in letting Robson go.

Robson will not say it, for he, too, is obliged to play a political game in this most political of clubs, but he knows that every new victory he delivers is as much a source of discomfort as of joy to the increasingly perplexed Barcelona president.

That was why, in the press conference after Saturday night's match, Robson allowed himself a grin when, in reply to one of many questions about his future, he said: "All I can do is wait and see what my masters do." He looked oddly calm, another journalist remarked. To which he responded, splashing a broad smile: "Inside, I'm elated."

He had not just won a game. He has won a war. For Barcelona fans to beat Real Madrid is an end in itself, no matter what their position in the league may be. "It's the biggest club fixture in the world," Robson had said before hostilities began. "We're the Catalunian army. They are the army of Spain."

And so it proved within 20 minutes of the game when two Barcelona players were wheeled off the pitch injured, never to return. The Brazilian wing- back, Roberto Carlos, had kicked Giovanni, his compatriot and fellow international, and Miguel Angel Nadal, Spain's centre-back, out of the game. Roberto Carlos was lucky to receive only one yellow card, but Robson, who found himself having to adjust his best-laid plans before he had had a chance to breathe, confessed himself luckier, in an aside yesterday morning, not to have lost five players before the end of the first half.

It was attritional football and the game rarely flowed, but amidst the dust of battle, the quality of Barcelona shone. With the exception of Schmeichel it is hard to imagine too many Manchester United players making it into Robson's team. Ivan de la Pena, a shaven-headed 21-year-old Spaniard built like Maradona, got the better of the midfield battle with the dreadlocked Dutchman Clarence Seedorf, never once losing the ball in possession and making what Robson later called, "some exquisite passes" which should have led to more goals. Robson would not trade De la Pena for David Beckham.

Luis Figo, a Portuguese international who plays equally well on both wings, terrorised the Real defence and made the pass that led to Ronaldo's decisive tap-in goal in the 46th minute of the first half. Ronaldo himself, voted Fifa's best player in the world last year, was otherwise shackled by the three players who enveloped him whenever he had a sight of goal.

Robson is licking his lips at the prospect of taking his squad, valued at around pounds 100m, into the European Cup next season against the likes of the English champions. As he says himself: "Where do you go after Barcelona? No club's bigger."

Barcelona: Vitor Baia; Albert, Abelardo, Guardiola, Figo (Pizzi, 90), Ronaldo, Giovanni (Popescu, 15), Sergi, Nadal (Stoichkov, 22), Luis Enrique, De la Pena.

Real Madrid: Illgner; Roberto Carlos, Hierro, Redondo, Raul, Mijatovic, Suker (Roberto, 71), Seedorf, Panucci, Alkorta, Sanchez (Amavisca, h- t).