Defeat prompts calls for Nou Camp clear-out
MADRID, April 30 (Reuters) - Less than two years after Barcelona strode to a magnificent victory in the Champions League, the side's narrow exit at the hands of Manchester United has all but erased the memory of that triumph.
'This team is finished,' was the banner headline plastered on the front page of Barcelona-based daily Sport on Wednesday. 'It's the end of an era,' said its rival El Mundo Deportivo.
Even before the match, the volatile Catalan media had been sharpening their knives and calling for a clear-out of the squad at the end of the season, but the Old Trafford defeat has added a new sense of urgency to their demands.
Ronaldinho, the player largely responsible for steering Barcelona to back-to-back league titles and their Champions League triumph in 2006, already has one foot out of the door.
Coach Frank Rijkaard, midfielder Deco, defenders Rafael Marquez, Gianluca Zambrotta and Lilian Thuram and striker Thierry Henry have all joined the Brazilian on the list of likely discards.
Although Rijkaard denied he had any plans to resign, the players admitted that the time had come for reflection on the club's decline in form over the past two seasons.
'Each one of us bears our part of the blame and we have to think about what can be done so that this team can get back to winning ways,' Deco told reporters after the game.
'A club like Barcelona can't go two years without winning a trophy. In the league we have slipped up at key moments and we haven't been able to reach any final. We have to think carefully and discuss this within the club.'
The irony of Barcelona's defeat was that although they played the more attractive football for much of the tie against United, it was their lack of fire-power up front that ended up sealing their fate.
At the start of the season with the arrival of Henry from Arsenal, the talk had been of a 'fantastic four' in an attack comprising the French striker, Samuel Eto'o, Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho.
The reality has been very different, however, and Barca's season has stalled because of their inability to score goals in key matches.
Unsettled by personal problems and struggling to adapt to a new position on the left flank, Henry has failed to live up to his billing in his first season at the Nou Camp.
Eto'o's season has once again been hampered by injury and absence at the African Nations Cup, and the Cameroon striker lacks the spark and predatory instinct that made him such an effective player two seasons ago.
Messi's campaign has also been disrupted by injury and although the Argentine was Barca's most dangerous player on Tuesday, he looked to be fighting a lone battle up front.
Ronaldinho is a story apart. Fitness and weight problems, a mysterious succession of injuries and an apparent lack of motivation have meant that the former World Player of the Year has taken almost no part in the current campaign.
The only bright note has been the emergence of Bojan Krkic, but the 17-year-old has been used sparingly by Rijkaard and is a long way from being the finished product.
However, it is not just the strikers that should take the blame for the blunting of the team's attacking power.
The team lacks the intensity and pace that characterised its play two seasons ago, new fullbacks Zambrotta and Eric Abidal do not get forward and stretch opposition defences as much as their predecessors, while the midfield supply lines have become too slow and predictable.
The club will be planning a major overhaul ahead of next season, but before that the present crop of players have some important unfinished business to attend to.
The team is four points adrift of Villarreal in third place in the table and unless they can beat a revived Valencia and a dominant Real Madrid in their next two games they will almost certainly be condemned to playing in the Champions League qualifiers at the start of next season.