The lost spirit of Barcelona
Repeating perfection was never going to be easy for Barcelona and their task has proved to be near impossible without the talents of striker supreme, Samuel Eto'o.
While Ronaldinho may be promoted as the talisman of the side that dominated European football in 2006, Eto'o's absence with the knee injury he sustained in the Champions League draw against Werder Breman back in September has exposed a major flaw in Barca's make-up.
They may have been classy enough to make it through to the knock-out stages of the Champions League and remain a leader in Spain's championship race, but the aura developed by Frank Rijkaard's side last season has been lost in Eto'o's absence.
Defeat in FIFA's World Cup Championships and a couple of humbling results against Premiership champions Chelsea led many a pundit to suggest the Barca magic has been lost, but those theories may soon be banished with the return of the striker who did so much to put them on top.
Eto'o has targeted a return to the Barcelona first team early in the New Year and he is clearly desperate to end what has been a painful wait on the sidelines. 'I've been like a lost spirit on match days,' lamented the Cameron striker. 'I've really missed the big crowds at the Nou Camp, the adrenaline and, naturally, the goals. I'll be raring to go in the New Year. I'll be fresh, enthusiastic and nothing will stop me.
'A setback like this makes you tougher mentally. You have to show discipline and resilience to recover properly. It's been a tough time but you can't allow yourself to be full of self-pity. I accepted the lay-off with philosophy. A bad injury is one of the risks of this profession and I comforted myself with the thought that it was better to be injured at the start of the season rather than in the spring, the time when trophies are won.
'My recovery has gone perfectly and I'm not afraid to set the bar high for the remainder of the season. I want to be part of a Barca side that defends its Spanish and European titles. It's not out of the question that I could finish as top scorer in the Liga. I'm coming back feeling very confident.'
An injection of such unbreakable self-belief may be just what Barcelona require after a shaky start to the season that has included high profile defeats against key rivals in La Liga and the Champions League. At their flowing best, the Catalan giants remain the most thrilling team to behold, but they have stuttered more often than not this season and if Eto'o's return was not imminent, the clamour to land a major striker in the January transfer window would be overwhelming.
However, Rijkaard knows he has their ideal man coming back into his team as Eto'o has all the attributes required to provide the finishing touches to the Barca master plan. His movement and energy sets him apart from the rest and while Eidur Gudjohnsen has done his best to step into the shoes of Africa's most gifted footballer, he could never offer quite so much.
As if to confirm the respect Eto'o commands in the game, none other than Zinedine Zidane has gone on record to suggest he should have been receiving the top prize in the World Player of the Year awards ahead of Italy's World Cup winning skipper, Fabio Cannavaro.
|“||I wouldn't want to pour scorn on the Golden Ball. If I'd won, I'd be so happy and proud, but it's not the be all and end all. ”|
Quite how Zidane's comments have gone down in his native France is open to question as many there have been promoting the claims of Thierry Henry to land such awards for years, yet the disgraced former Real Madrid player has been outspoken in his support of a former Barcelona rival.
'Of course I'm very honoured by Zidane's comments,' states Eto'o. 'It's always nice to be respected by your peers and as one of the greats of the game, Zidane's opinion carries a lot of clout. It was nice to come sixth in the ballot, but at the end of the day, the results of your team are much important than individual prizes. I wouldn't want to pour scorn on the Golden Ball. If I'd won, I'd be so happy and proud, but it's not the be all and end all.
'There can only be one winner and it's worth noting that even a superstar like my friend Thierry Henry has never won it. He is a wonderful player. If God decides I'm worthy, I'll win it one day, maybe next season.'
Turning his attentions to the La Liga title battle he is about to re-enter, Eto'o suggests Barcelona's main challengers may not merely be the age old rival from the Spanish capital.
'Sevilla are a much-improved side and I think they will stay the course to the end and so should Real Madrid,' he continues. 'Real's coach, Fabio Capello, has given them greater organisation and mental toughness. They might not be so pretty to watch but they are a very effective unit. Still, I don't see them having enough to take the league title away from us.'
He is equally clear in his belief that the giants of the Premiership provide the most serious threat to his side's title as European champions this season. 'Any one of the Premiership teams are a danger in the Champions League,' he believes. 'I know Chelsea have the hunger to be the European Champions for the first time, Liverpool are fantastic at home, Manchester United are flying high at the moment, playing some great attacking football.
'I also think Arsenal can be a threat. As long as they have Thierry (Henry) in their team, they must have a chance. He's been having some physical problems, but as soon as he's 100 per cent, he will be back to his best. I'd never write Thierry off. As outsiders I'd go for Lyon or Roma.'
He may be happy to hand respect to Barcelona's rivals, but Eto'o is certain he will still playing for the best team in Europe when he makes his comeback and his convictions are heartfelt.
'It doesn't get any better than this,' he adds. 'Barca are my dream team. They are most fans dream team.
'I'm spoilt to be surrounded by so many creative players, guys with extraordinary levels of technique, awareness and invention. With the likes of Ronaldinho, Deco, Iniesta, Xavi and Giuly by your side, it's hard to go wrong.'
When Eto'o puts it like that, talk of a decline in Barcelona's fortunes seems more than a little futile.