The iceman and the sun kings

Gudjohnsen slips out of understudy role to take his big chance in the Chelsea reunion
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The Independent Football

One of Barcelona's multiple daily sports papers set the tone for the next seven days with the stirring headline: "Let The Spectacle Begin". Though the spectacular frequently tends towards the commonplace where this city's leading and all-conquering football club are concerned, the three games to be contested in the coming week could define their season, without actually making or wrecking it.

The assumption in Britain is that Barcelona's latest head-to-head with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday will be the landmark occasion for the holders of the Spanish title and the League of Champions silverware, but that is not the way Frank Rijkaard and his team are looking at it.

For them Stamford Bridge amounts, they say, to no more than the filling in a week which sees them take on high-flying Seville at the Nou Camp this evening and then travel to Real Madrid, their eternal rivals for La Liga supremacy, next Sunday. Though it is early days in La Liga, Seville nestle just one point behind unbeaten Bar-celona, their physicality and confidence posing a twin threat.

That confidence received an enormous boost when Seville, the Uefa Cup champions, crushed Barcelona 3-0 in the European Super Cup. It was a humiliation Barça are anxious to wipe away in style tonight, their players reunited on Friday after a 15-day gap because of international commitments which removed 11 of their stars.

Whatever the opposition, Barcelona's style is to storm the ramparts, their simple philo-sophy being that goals are what matter. The ability to rack them up in these three matches will be keenly watched in the absence of Samuel Eto'o and the near-desperate search for form of the club talisman, Ronaldinho. Eto'o, their top scorer last season and a crucial ingredient in the Rijkaard mix, pulled up after an hour of Barça's last European outing, against Werder Bremen in Germany, with a torn ligament in his right knee. An operation means that he will be out of action for five months.

As for Ronaldinho, that perma-grin has slipped a little of late since his indifferent World Cup summer, and immediately after the Real Madrid match he is being shipped off for a week of high-level fitness training which will mean him missing two games, one in the league and the other in the Spanish Cup.

Nobody needs to tell Javier Saviola and Eidur Gudjohnsen that this is their chance to claim a regular starting place in Europe's most successful side. The Argentinian Saviola has returned to Barcelona after a spell with Seville, reportedly turning down 14 other clubs in choosing the Nou Camp, while for Gudjohnsen there could be no better time to put firmly behind him the impression that he was signed from Chelsea for £8 million in the summer as a replacement for that perennial and highly effective Barcelona substitute Henrik Larsson. The 28-year-old Gudjohnsen is relishing the opportunity to shine against Chelsea, where he spent six seasons, a time he insists was happy, even when he was shifted from the front line into midfield and then lost his regular place.

"I loved every minute," the Icelandic striker claims. "But when Jose Mourinho stopped picking me it was time to move on." The move to Barcelona was the stuff of dreams, a club he first visited as an 11-year-old to watch his father, Arnor, playing for Anderlecht in the Cup-Winners' Cup in 1989, and where he returned with PSV Eindhoven and, of course, Chelsea.

While clearly wishing to help defeat his old employers, Gudjohnsen, on his return two days ago from international duty with Iceland, was at pains to defend Chelsea's buying policy with the comment: "There are other teams in Europe who have spent lots of money without being successful. It is necessary to find the right mix, which is what Chelsea did in my last two season with them." However, he is tongue-in-cheek adamant that his new club have the edge when it comes to tradition. "The difference is that Barcelona have been at the top for 100 years, and Chelsea haven't."

Gudjohnsen has settled well to his new life, is learning the Catalan language and is proud that his eight-year-old son, Sven, has been recruited to the club's junior scheme. He also impressed by voluntarily under-going extra training simply because, he says, he had been accustomed to training harder in England. Playing harder, too, at a higher physical level.

Scoring in his first game, against Celta Vigo, provided a huge uplift. "It settled the nerves," he said. "When you come to a new club for a lot of money people want to see you live up to expectations from the start."

That is a sentiment shared by Michael Ballack, who arrived at Chelsea in the wake of Gudjohnsen's departure. He told a Spanish sports paper that he and Andriy Shevchenko are needing time to settle at Stamford Bridge, while promising that Wednesday's game would be anything but boring.

"It doesn't come any bigger than Chelsea-Barcelona," said Ballack. "We are talking about two giant clubs, full of extraordinarily gifted players." Asked whether he feared Barcelona, the German captain chose to be diplomatic: "I respect them." Also relishing a return to London this week is Giovanni van Bronckhorst, the former Arsenal full-back now known simply as Gio in his Barcelona shirt. He feels it is better for both clubs that they are meeting at the group stage, rather than the knockout phase as last year. "So hopefully we will see each other again in the final," he smiled, a bottle of water in each hand as he headed off home after training on Friday.

"I don't think there is bad blood between us and Chelsea," he maintained. "Just a healthy rivalry between two teams capable of winning the Champions' League, though Chelsea are stronger now than before because of their latest buys."

Gio agrees that the absence of Eto'o is a blow. "It is a big loss because he is our top scorer, but now we have two new players who can fill his role, Saviola and Gudjohnsen." Not forgetting that supposedly off-form Brazilian called Ronaldinho.

Champions' League: The Brit challenge


Celtic v Benfica

The possibility of Celtic and Manchester United qualifying from Group F was greatly enhanced by victories in the last round of matches. The key for the Scottish champions is the double-header against Benfica. At least nothing will be decided in the same way as their one previous European Cup meeting, in 1969 - Celtic won on the toss of a coin.


Man Utd v Copenhagen

Manchester United have not lost a Champions' League game at home for exactly five years and should have little to fear from this one - except that it is exactly the sort of tie in which they failed to score last season, ending up bottom of the group. The Danes, who include the former Chelsea winger Jesper Gronkjaer, have yet to score after two group matches.


CSKA Moscow V Arsenal

Impressive thus far in victories over Hamburg's 10 men and then Porto, Arsène Wenger's team face potentially their most difficult test. CSKA, having drawn in Portugal, squeezed past the German side in their second game and would top the group at the halfway stage if they can win. The game kicks off early (5.30pm BST) as the Moscow winter sets in.


Chelsea V Barcelona

John Terry correctly predicted before the last round of games that Werder Bremen could make life difficult for Barcelona, which they duly did, the Spaniards only salvaging a point with Lionel Messi's late equaliser. That gave Chelsea, with six points out of six, a psychological and mathematical advantage they will need for this feisty double-header.


Bordeaux v Liverpool

Like Copenhagen, Bordeaux have only one point and no goals from their opening games and must hope Vladimir Smicer, a goalscoring hero for Liverpool in the "miracle of Istanbul" final, recovers from injury to face his old club, who released him last summer. Liverpool have a poor record in France, but with four points already in the bank, a draw here would be acceptable.

Steve Tongue