Football: Van Gaal braced for the backlash in Barcelona

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When Barcelona lured Louis van Gaal away from Ajax last summer he was hailed as the man to restore the Catalan club's supremacy over Real Madrid.

After a promising start his reign may be turning sour but, as Glenn Moore reports from the Spanish city, events in the Dutchman's personal life have enabled him to put a few bad results into perspective.

It was a warm day in the Catalan capital yesterday but Louis van Gaal, the coach of Barcelona, was not around to enjoy it. He was back home in the Netherlands. To the uninitiated it might appear that the biggest job in club football had finally overcome the biggest ego.

Van Gaal, who replaced Bobby Robson in the summer, has not had a happy start at the Nou Camp. The press are on his back, the fans do not understand his tactics, the players have the fitness record of Tottenham and the disciplinary one of Arsenal. With two matches still to play they are already out of the Champions' League and, worst of all, the team's weekend defeat to Real Oviedo means that Real Madrid, the blaugrana's hated rivals, have replaced them at the top of La Liga.

But Van Gaal can put all this in perspective. He missed the Oviedo defeat, and the preliminaries for tonight's Champions' League match with Newcastle, because he was attending the funeral of his mother. He was called last Thursday, by his sister who said his 83-year-old mother "was desperate to see him". She died on Friday morning - but he is thought to have returned in time to speak with her. He flew back to Barcelona last night and will take charge of tonight's match.

It will be instructive to see the local reaction to Van Gaal's loss. The 46-year-old creator of Ajax's 1995 European champions is not a man to court popularity. Notoriously demanding of his players he can be witheringly dismissive of critics whether press or public. One wonders, too, whether his mother's death will affect his outward show of absolute certainty in his methods and destiny.

One blessing he does have is a wholly supportive club president and board. It is argued that Barcelona cannot afford to sack him barely months into a lucrative five-year contract, but his security is not simply down to finance. His capture was a major plank in Jose Luis Nunez's re-election and the president and coach have publicly embarked on a long-term rebuilding plan. Van Gaal may have spent pounds 44m this summer but few expected the rebuilt team, which had lost Ronaldo, to adapt to the Van Gaal way as quickly as players brought through the Ajax system.

The long-term solution, and one reason behind Van Gaal's arrival, is the development of their own players. Of the current regulars only Josep Guardiola, Sergi and Amor have come through the ranks (which is, admittedly, better than Newcastle who have just Steve Howey and Steve Watson).

That, however, is for the future. Barcelona and Van Gaal still need results in the meantime. Initially this did not appear to be a problem, with Barcelona winning their first five matches under Van Gaal. Then came the defeat at St James' Park followed by a home draw with PSV Eindhoven and a 3-0 defeat in Kiev.

The Champions Cup - won only once by Barcelona, under Johan Cruyff in 1992 - was drifting away but Van Gaal bought time with a dramatic, if fortuitous, 3-2 win over Real Madrid in the Bernabeu. It was Real's first home defeat for 19 months and left them third trailing Barcelona, the leaders, by seven points. The result was crucial. For historical reasons rooted in traditional regional rivalries and intensified by the Franco dictatorship - during which Barcelona symbolised Catalan nationalism against Madrid centralism - the two league matches against Real Madrid lie at the very heart of supporting Barcelona. Winning them can save a season, losing them can destroy one.

However, the injuries and suspensions had been mounting and, four days later, Van Gaal's luck - which had prompted the description "he has a flower up his backside" - ran out in a catastrophic 4-0 home defeat to Kiev. Three defeats in four league games have followed with the latest ending with Barcelona reduced to nine men after Fernando Couto and Guardiola were sent off.

The local sports paper, El Mundo Deportivo, thus led yesterday morning with five pages of criticism of the club's disciplinary record. Further inside was another indication of the club's troubles, Emmanuel Amunike on crutches. Ivan de la Pena, another casualty, was also pictured in hospital, but this time he was there as a Good Samaritan visiting an unwell fan.

As well as those two, Barcelona have lost nine other internationals to: Guardiola, Victor Baia, Michael Reiziger, Luis Figo, Giovanni, Sonny Anderson, Hristo Stoickov, Christophe Dugarry and Luis Enrique. Not even Barcelona's resources can overcome that and, for the recent home match with Kiev, Van Gaal was down to 11 fully fit first-team players.

However, as Gerry Francis discovered, injuries can only be used as an extenuating circumstance for so long. Barcelona can still put out an ostensibly formidable side. Tonight's match, as the club captain, Figo, said yesterday, is important in terms of restoring pride and prestige, but the Champions' League is gone.

Van Gaal's task this season is to overhaul Madrid in the domestic game and, if that cannot be achieved, he must ensure they remain second and thus qualify for next year's Champions' League and avoid defeat in the home game against Real on 8 March. Lose then and the white hankerchiefs, that traditional sign of supporter displeasure, could be out with only Nunez standing between Van Gaal and a humiliating exit.

The president would probably hold firm but, even if he did not Van Gaal, in the wake of his recent loss, would be able to see the decision for what it was: a setback in his brilliant career, not the end of the world.