Ronaldinho: 'We must be United at Anfield'
If you were to make a judgement based solely on the headlines of the past week, it would be easy to think Liverpool are about to step into the scene of a gruesome car wreck at the Nou Camp.
However, reports of Barcelona's demise are greatly exaggerated and just in case Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez needed a tonic to focus his mind as his team prepare to climb the tallest mountain of them all, the return to form of a certain Ronaldinho should have done just that.
If 2004 and 2005 were glorious years in the life of the world's greatest footballer, then 2006 was arguably his most traumatic yet and even though he can look back on the year in the knowledge that he won the Champions League and Spanish title, the buck-toothed one knows he could and maybe should have achieved so much more.
Whether he cracked under the pressure in World Cup year or simply ran out of inspiration to produce his magic is a question not even the man himself can answer, but he accepts the time has come for him to answer his critics and silence those in the Nou Camp crowd who had the audacity to jeer him just a couple of weeks ago.
Instead of throwing the sort of childish tantrum that has got Samuel Eto'o in trouble over the last week, Ronaldinho insists he is ready to answer his critics in Spain and defy those who have turned their back on him.
'I've always said I'm very happy with the life I have at this club and in this city, so nothing has changed,' he begins. 'The club have always treated me very well, so have the fans and my team mates. I feel perfectly at home here and hope to remain for many years. The only thing on my mind is to play to the best of my ability and make sure everyone here is happy with my work.
'I enjoy pressure, it's not a problem for me. Also, people must remember I'm not the only one in a team. When Eto'o was injured, for example, several of us had to make sure he wasn't missed too much. Barca isn't one man and the interests of the team come first, this is always the situation. We are still top of the league so this shows we responded like a team should.'
Explaining away his inept performances at last summer's World Cup has been a daily chore for Ronaldinho ever since, but he hopes this assessment puts the question to bed once and for all.
'Everybody was expecting me to be as influential for Brazil at the World Cup as I had been for Barca and I'm the first to admit that it didn't happen,' he concedes. 'At Barca, I have more freedom, I operate closer to the opposition goal. For my club I often work from the left but there's also scope for me to move to the other flank.
'Then at the World Cup, I played deeper, behind two attackers. When I got the ball, I found myself facing so many defenders. That's the reason I didn't have the same impact. It was disappointing because I had high hopes for the tournament, but I feel good about my game again now.'
|“||Defeat against Liverpool is not an option ”|
Ronaldinho was among those who opening criticised his dissenting team-mate, but he refuses to be drawn on the subject ahead of a return to European action. 'The only way Barca can show how united we can be is by playing our best against Liverpool,' he says.
'This team is made for games like this. We like the pressure and have proved we can respond in the right way earlier in this competition. Even after dropping five points against Chelsea in the group stage, we didn't panic. When we had to beat Bremen at home in our final match and did what we had to.
'We've become used to these pressure situations. We're expected to win every game, so we've been hardened by this and the result is that we don't have any anxiety out on the pitch or in the dressing room. We just have to do our thing. Keep possession of the ball, move it around quickly, tire out the opposition and strike at the right moment. One of our biggest assets is our risk-taking as we dare to do things others might hesitate over, so we are very strong mentally.
'All I'm thinking about is going through to the quarter-finals and defeat against Liverpool is not an option. My sights are set on taking part in another Final and winning again. Back-to-back Champions League victories is the supreme motivation. Our win in Paris last season filled me with pride and more of the same in Athens in May would be sweeter still. That's what I play for - to win trophies and make my mark.'
His respect for Liverpool seems to be immense and these complimentary words are bound to go down well on Merseyside. 'They are a special club, one of the most prestigious names in world football,' concludes 'Roni'.
'From what I've seen on the video, Liverpool are a very solid, well-organised and athletic side. On the defensive side, they don't give much away, their pressing game is effective and they are extremely quick on the counter-attack. So without losing our attacking identity, it will be crucial that we don't over-commit going forward in the first leg.
'Liverpool have the players to punish us if we make that mistake. The midfield will be a very important area, with Gerrard and Xabi Alonso for Liverpool and Deco, Iniesta and Xaxi for us. Whoever comes out on top here, will be taking a big step towards victory. I'm backing us.'
Barcelona's free-flowing fantasy football of last season has been replaced with some edgy and less than convincing performances in recent months, yet they remain a formidable force who could quite easily click back into top gear against Liverpool this week.
Should that transpire, Frank Rijkaard's crisis will end as quickly as it began.