Eto'o sparkle ignites Catalan dream

As La Liga resumes, Barça's striker explains to Tim Hanlon why he's done so well at the Nou Camp
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The Independent Football

For Many Barcelona fans the team of their dreams remains Johan Cruyff's vibrant side of the early Nineties. It was then that the likes of Romario and Hristo Stoichkov gave the club its greatest moment when Ronald Koeman's free-kick won them their European Cup in 1992.

However as Spanish football resumes this weekend after its brief winter break, there are plenty of Barça followers who feel the current team - managed by Frank Rijkaard, another Dutchman - are capable of emulating, even surpassing, the deeds of those heroes of yesteryear.

If they do, the crucial contribution is less likely to be Ronaldinho's tricks or Deco's artistry but the clinical finishing of Samuel Eto'o. The Cameroon international has been the star of the first half of La Liga season, outshining any of the Real Madrid galacticos, and even his much-admired team-mate Ronaldinho, the new world footballer of the year.

The 23 year old is the current pichichi (top scorer) in Spain, having scored 13 league and three Champions' League goals. He arrived at the Nou Camp last summer in a complicated transfer (he was jointly owned by Real Madrid and Real Mallorca), but remains level-headed about his achievement.

"I am not surprised by the number of goals that I have scored this season because I am surrounded by great players," he says. "My success is a result of the work of my team-mates. They are the ones that make me look good.

"It is thanks to them that I score. An older player once told me that a footballer's family includes his team-mates in the dressing room - and a family never lets you down. I have to do my work and if I fail they fail."

It is five years since Barcelona won a trophy, and there have been some dark days during that period - not least being utterly eclipsed by their hated rivals Real Madrid, who have amassed two Spanish titles and two Champions' League trophies while Barça have been floundering in the wilderness.

Now, though, those roles seem about to be reversed, with Rijkaard's brilliant team establishing a 10-point lead in La Liga (over Valencia) and savouring a mouth-watering tie in the Champions' League against Chelsea.

With Ronaldinho having struggled for most of the season with an ankle injury, Eto'o has scored most of the vital goals, none more so than his strike three minutes from time to give Barça victory against Levante in their last match.

"I watch all the games that I have played afterwards on video and try to learn from the mistakes that I made," he said, "but it is true that the role of a striker is to make a quick decision and it is not always right."

Eto'o admitted that he was daunted at first at the prospect of playing in a Barça side full of stars but says he has benefited from playing alongside some hugely talented team-mates, not least the former Celtic hero Henrik Larsson.

"The biggest thing that I have learnt here, is to play without the ball and in that respect I have an unbeatable teacher in [Henrik] Larsson," Eto'o added. "The most important thing he has taught me is about movement. It is vital that the reference for the attack makes diagonal movements into space and so drags defenders, making openings in the area for the second line." He adds, a little confusingly: "It is not as easy as it sounds. People talk a lot about the talent of the Barça team, and it clearly has it, but there is almost more work than talent in our team."

"Xavi [Hernandez], Deco and Ronaldinho are great footballers and I worried about whether I would understand their play. I try to think as them, to anticipate a decision that they are going to make. They are very courageous in their play and I aim to copy them in the sense that they are not afraid to fail, they are winners and do not have fear.

"Football is also a game of failure and they are winners because if they do not succeed in something they are not afraid to try it again."

Rijkaard usually plays Eto'o in the centre of attack with Ronaldinho to his left and Ludovic Giuly to his right. Eto'o says he prefers the extra responsibility which comes with the position.

"On the wings I play more directly, it is more straight forward and concrete. But in the centre I work more and I take a lot of decisions. I am the only player in the team that plays with his back to the goal and I am a target like [Rafael] Marquez in defence.

"When I get the ball I need to choose, to play the ball off, or to turn and head for the area. In the game I put my heart into it, I think a lot more than it appears. But I play with my head almost more than my legs."

There can be no better man to judge the potential of this present Barça side than Cruyff himself, who still has an influence at the club although he has steered clear of an official position.

"I believe that we are at the door of a new great era for Barça similar to when I was trainer of the club and we can go on to win a lot of titles - but that is if the coaches, directors and the rest do not get involved with outside interferences," he said.

"They are now the clear favourites to win the league but they must face the second half of the season with more pressure and start out again from the beginning. Rijkaard knows how a footballer thinks and also has great maturity and humility. This is vital for there to be a good atmosphere in the dressing room."