Barcelona's lost leader feels big chill

Tim Collings in Barcelona sees the Catalan giants run out of excuses
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The Independent Football

Little more than 100 days after taking over arguably the hottest seat in European club football, Barcelona's president, Joan Gaspart, was left feeling the chilly wind of disappointment whipping off the Mediterranean last week as the Catalans crashed out of the Champions' League and faced up to a different kind of life in the Uefa Cup.

Little more than 100 days after taking over arguably the hottest seat in European club football, Barcelona's president, Joan Gaspart, was left feeling the chilly wind of disappointment whipping off the Mediterranean last week as the Catalans crashed out of the Champions' League and faced up to a different kind of life in the Uefa Cup.

As he turned up his collar and scowled, it was left to Rivaldo to talk. But all his brave words, about using the secondary competition to remove their frustrations, had a hollow ring as the Spaniards looked ahead to the tricky task of overcoming unbeaten Belgian league leaders Club Bruges in an attempt to regain some pride this season.

"We had so much hope for success in the Champions' League and it is still really difficult to believe that we are out so soon," said the Brazilian, scorer of six goals in the opening phase, including a penalty in the 5-0 win over Besiktas at a half-empty Nou Camp, where the crackle of transistor radios dominated the airwaves on Wednesday night. "We are all feeling it very much. It is a tough blow, a shock for us all. But, now, we know we have to go on and win the Uefa Cup. Anything else will be a real disaster."

The safe passage as group leaders of Spain's three other Champions' League contenders - defending European Cup holders Real Madrid, beaten finalists Valencia and Primera Liga champions Deportivo La Coruna - not only emphasised the strength of their league, it also confirmed that Barcelona's expectations are often, if not always, greater than their results. This was, after all, the third time in four seasons that the world's biggest club had failed to progress beyond the opening stage after being labelled pre-tournament favourites.

For the crestfallen Gaspart, a wealthy hotelier with political leanings, who only inherited the presidency on 23 July in succession to Josep Luis Nuñez after being vice-president for 22 years, it was a serious blow to his pride. If the loss of Luis Figo, to Real Madrid, was careless, this was catastrophic. Quite simply, it compounded the impression that under the amiable coach Llorenc Serra Ferrer, who succeeded Louis van Gaal after the Dutchman's team had failed to beat Valencia in the Champions' League semi-final, nothing has improved.

Gaspart, embarrassed by claims of Barça bonuses offered to Milan players to beat Leeds at the San Siro, compounded his own indignities on Wednesday night by suggesting that the Italians had made little, if any, attempt to win the game. "In all honesty," he said, "I did not see anything that suggested Milan wanted to win. It was not just a matter of prestige, was it? What I saw from there in the last 20 minutes left me feeling very unhappy. Barcelona are a club, a great club, for which it is an obligation to win the European Cup. There has to be a way for this to be resolved properly."

From any neutral perspective, it is clear that Barcelona's unexpected defeats in Turkey and at home to Milan were their undoing in this competition. On Wednesday night, despite the efforts of Rivaldo in a team lacking balance and cohesion, Barça won thanks to the vigour of two-goal Luis Enrique in midfield, while others appeared uncertain of their roles. Emmanuel Petit, for example, looked distinctly uncomfortable as the left-sided member of a defensive trio, and afterwards declared himself "too exhausted to talk to anyone about anything".

His disappointment was a fair reflection of the mood that fell across the Catalan capital as the night drew in. Twice this year, a Barcelona coach has had to find excuses for Champions' League failure as their greatest rivals have marched on. Despite reunifying a club split by divisions last spring, Gaspart has failed to shine. The fortune banked after the sale of Figo has not been spent wisely, the team - as highlighted by Patrick Kluivert - lack a replacement playmaker and seem destined to live among the also-rans.

For the 110,000 members, one European Cup win, conjured by Johan Cruyff's team in 1992, is simply not good enough.

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