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Play it again, Sam

Funny thing football. Just when you think that you're ok, just when the edifice that you've built seems to be getting bigger and more beautiful, it suddenly all comes tumbling down - but for no reason particularly connected to football.

Ask Real Madrid and Chelsea recently. Ronaldo has gone - 'It was his decision' snapped Capello this weekend when a journalist pointed out that he'd scored twice in Siena, Beckham is back in the fold, but Cassano remains a problem. To forgive another player, or not to forgive, that is the question.

At Chelsea, the Shevchenko affair has threatened to derail all the good work put in over the previous two seasons vis à vis team spirit and togetherness - something the Chelsea players were themselves so adamant about at the height of their form last season.

Bring on the clowns. Now it's Barcelona's turn, just as they face a tricky old month. Liverpool twice in the Champions League, plus Sevilla away and Real Madrid at home before the first fortnight of March is over.

The week in Spain has been dominated by the Eto'o affair - young Sam has been playing it again or rather not playing, as the case may be. Having been out since September 27th with a serious knee injury, his re-appearance has not proved to be the happy affair that the house of Barça was building it up to be.

Eto'o, one of the world's best players but never the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to toeing the line, refused last week to join the fray with five minutes remaining of Barça's home game with Racing Santander.

Quite why he refused was never really established, but the incident gave way to a flurry of speculation, press conferences, denials and bitching that have had the desired effect for Real Madrid, at any rate. Capello was actually heard to remark during the week that he felt 'relieved'. The heat had blown east from the capital, at least for a few days.

Of course, it's easy to view the whole affair as a pro-Madrid media conspiracy, designed to deflect attention from the Bernabéu and to de-stabilise the opposition, but the longer things have gone on the more it has seemed like a spectacular own goal on the Catalans' part. To rub further salt into the wound, they lost - rather predictably in the end - 2-1 away at Valencia.

Eto'o stayed at home, apparently at his own request, in order to continue building up his fitness and his 'psychological state' (sic), but most journalists who had witnessed Barça's training sessions this week pronounced Eto'o sharp as a knife. His stay-at-home has fooled no-one. Now Sevilla are level on points, Valencia are only four behind, and even Real Madrid, stuttering to another home draw (this time with Betis) are still close enough on their heels to damage them in the coming 'el clásico'.

Eto'o has certainly been instrumental in Barcelona's ascendancy to the throne in the past two seasons, and apart from the occasional blow-up, has generally behaved himself.

Given the chance to return to Real Madrid under Pérez (Madrid still owned him contractually) after a successful spell with Mallorca that saw him become their permanent 'Pichichi' and hero, he was made unwelcome at the Bernabéu, and ended up at the Camp Nou. It is still unclear whether Madrid really did make sure he never returned to them, but they were to regret this on the several occasions that Eto'o made a habit of scoring against them, outshining Ronaldo in just about everything save the large belly stakes. And yet it was always a risk.

Rijkaard had not really tamed the beast in Eto'o. As the old cliché goes, once you can control the man whose temper fires his spirit, the man himself disappears.

This week, Eto'o broke the Barcelona rules that say that dirty linen must never be washed in public. Real Madrid used to believe that too, but three seasons of hurting have put paid to their particular version of omertà.

What happened this week in Barcelona was that players took sides - never a good sign. Ronaldinho implied at the end of last weekend that Eto'o had not been thinking of the team - that his action had been wrong-headed in this sense. Eto'o seemed to find this amusing, and accused Ronaldinho, as one has suspected for some time, of double standards - of turning up late after Brazilian games, of leaving training early to fulfil advertising contracts, and so on and so forth.

It was a fair point. On the day after St Valentine's Day (Wednesday 155h) the papers led with pictures of the two players in a lovey-dovey clinch at the training ground, their spat seemingly forgotten in a publicly staged show of solidarity by Barça.

Marca, serially unconvinced, led their edition with the headline 'The Day of the Lovers' in reference to Feb 14th, counter-pointing their headline with the sub-header 'Or Fools' Day?' in reference to Spain's equivalent of April Fool's Day. It accused Txiki Begiristain, the club's Director of Football, of being 'Cupid', referring to his insistence that Eto'o's best mate at the club was Ronaldinho.

That was a daft thing to say, because everyone knows it's untrue. For some time now the factions at the club have been fairly obvious. Real Madrid had their own particular Brazilian problem last season, with daft dances and a little clique of players seemingly intent on advertising their little social club, but it blew over.

At Barça, the group of Brazilians are clearly a clique apart - particularly Ronaldinho, Deco and Motta. Beletti, Sylvinho and Edmilson make up the whole group, but Ronaldinho and Deco are the leaders, both of them brought to the club by the now departed Sandro Rosell, an ex-Nike executive without whom it is unlikely that Ronaldinho would have signed. How close he came to signing for Man Utd should be the story of the next decent investigative book on football.

The signing gave Laporta some much-needed credibility after the obvious porker about having signed David Beckham. But losing Rosell was hardly a sign of seny - the famous Catalan word for the concept of being sensible, of being switched on and of making the right decisions. Ronaldinho has never been quite so smiley since Rosell left. The same lack of seny could be said of the signing of Eto'o, a player whose short fuse would always blow, in the end.

Now the forward line consists of Gudjohnsen, a decent player but one who is not as effective as Larsson, and Santi Esquerro who hardly gets a game. Messi is back, but his physical state remains fragile. Saviola is the top scorer, and yet he remains unwanted. Ronaldinho is not playing well, despite the occasional flash of brilliance, and the defence looks rocky without Marquez to protect it.

Eto'o could be back this week, and he could triumph yet again - but it's difficult to know exactly whether his attack on both Ronaldinho and Frank Rijkaard (whom he accused of being a 'bad man') will fester or not. The fact that he has escaped any internal discipline at the club has been seen from the outside as a sign of institutional weakness. Rijkaard's famously laid-back approach has not worked in this instance. Fans are now worried that he will leave at the end of the season, and that he has had enough. He would certainly not be short of suitors, particularly Italian ones.

The other question is whether the whole incident is laying the first foundations of the end-of-season mega-swap between Old Trafford and the Camp Nou.

Methinks that Alex Ferguson hath been protesting too much of late in the press, insisting with a tone of increasing desperation, that his protégé Ronaldo is going nowhere, and that he's happy in rainy Manchester. Ronaldo himself, however, has given every indication that he wants to keep his options open, and that he wants to 'keep learning', whatever that means. Whatever it means, it's difficult to see him learning much more in England. He can beat everyone now, and more or less score and make goals at will.

The boy needs a challenge. Real Madrid doesn't seem like quite such a sexy option at present, but you never know, come the summer. By that time Real Madrid might have returned Reyes to Arsenal and/or sold Baptista on for a few bob, and will be looking to replace Becks on the marketing shelf. A new Portuguese manager (Mourinho) might help too. Don't dismiss the possibility.

The alternative would seem to be a straight swap with Eto'o, by that time expected to be a pariah at Barça. Ferguson admires Eto'o the player, and might be tempted into thinking that if he can handle Cantona, he can handle anyone.

Well - it would make an interesting scenario for both leagues. But beware of the bad apple, the moral of the story seems to be. He might score you bucketfuls, but it'll all end in tears, as my mum was wont to say.

Trophies are won on the field of play, of course - but long-term stability is guaranteed by getting the character mix right. Barça's Achilles Heel has been exposed. The next month is crucial for their continued success. It should make for interesting viewing.

  • Phil is a published author of some repute and we're very lucky to have him here on Soccernet. If you want to own a real-life Phil Ball book, you can purchase either An Englishman Abroad, Beckham's Spanish Adventure on that bloke with the ever-changing hairstyle, White Storm, Phil's book on the history and culture of Real Madrid and his splendid and acclaimed story of Spanish football, Morbo.

  • If you've any comments for Phil, email the newsdesk