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Vidic stumbles as Inter Milan draw

Inter Milan about an hour ago
Read
May 2, 2008

End of the road for Rijkaard

At about 10pm on Wednesday evening, while the rest of a vibrant Old Trafford reverberated in celebration, a sombre Frank Rijkaard entered the stadium's press room to address the media following the elimination of Barcelona from the Champions League.

Always an erudite orator, even in defeat the Dutchman remains one of the more thoughtful coaches and sure enough, in spite of the crushing disappointment that he was no doubt experiencing - coupled with the knowledge that he would not be given the chance next season to right what had gone wrong - Rijkaard's was a press conference worth noting.

His most interesting comments addressed the difference he sees between the way English clubs play in domestic competition, compared to the approach they take in Europe. Rijkaard contrasted the end-to-end nature of the Premier League with the more pragmatic, conservative approach that has become so prevalent in the Champions League.

Coming as it did following 180 minutes of football, in which one goal was scored, Rijkaard's opinion that the English way of playing in Europe was - not the most beautiful way of football' was understandable. However, it was precisely because he failed to grasp this adaptability, that Rijkaard and his team were going home.

After being rebuked for so long for not being able to play the - European' way, finally it seems that English clubs have learned how to win against continental opposition. Rather than being critical, Rijkaard would have been better served learning from what Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool have done this season.

Hard as it may be to believe given the squad with which he is blessed, but Rijkaard's insistence on operating a fluid 4-3-3 formation, featuring many interchanging parts, has become a reason for the failure of the Blaugranes this season, rather than a solution to the problem.

As Sir Alex Ferguson said the day before the second leg, Barcelona only know how to play one way. By contrast, the fact that English clubs have more than one string to their bow is the reason why Moscow will play host to the Premier League's top two on 21 May.

In light of his comments, it would have been interesting to hear Rijkaard's response to the events that transpired 24 hours later at Stamford Bridge. After conjuring a less-than-magical four goals in seven previous Champions League meetings, Chelsea and Liverpool combined to serve up a five-goal thriller that had all the hallmarks of a Premier League match.

The tie versus Manchester United was a microcosm of Barcelona's struggles this season. For all their territory and possession in both legs, how many times was Edwin van der Sar seriously tested? Where was the penetration from the educated feet of Xavi, Deco or Iniesta? And despite his impressive promptings, at what point did Lionel Messi find himself in a situation from which he could hurt United?

Playing as they do with one out-and-out striker, Barcelona require a dominant display from the man up front in order that the supporting cast has time to make its way forward in support. Unfortunately, in Samuel Eto'o this season, Rijkaard has not had his first-choice forward at his very best. A combination of injury and African Cup of Nations exertion has taken the edge off the Cameroonian and there has been little in the way of an alternative.

Thierry Henry's first season in Catalonia has, by his own admission, failed to live up to expectations, although it must be said that only rarely has the Frenchman been deployed in his preferred position, particularly since Eto'o has become available again. Beyond those two, only Eidur Gudjohnsen represents a legitimate central striking threat but the former Chelsea man has become increasingly peripheral.

With those up front failing to fire, the need for an impetus from attacking midfield has been increasingly important but has failed to transpire. The main reason for this are the problems that Ronaldinho has suffered in recent times, which have deprived Barca of a dribbling threat who can go past players at speed as well as a confident presence in front of goal. In the twelve games since the Brazilian's last appearance, Barcelona have three wins, five draws and four defeats.

While Ronaldinho pondered what to do next, so did Rijkaard. Without an attacking midfielder capable of making consistent late runs into a penalty area usually occupied by only one out-and-out striker, in recent weeks Barcelona have become overly-reliant on probing rather than penetration. Possession has been abundant but, as Xavi himself said this week, an end product has been lacking. After scoring sixteen goals in their first eight Champions league games this season, Barcelona scored just two in their next four.

The upshot of a tempestuous year at the Camp Nou is that there are expected to be a host of changes prior to the start of the next season, which is likely to begin in qualifying for the Champions League, unless Barcelona can overhaul Villarreal - who are currently four points ahead of them in second place - in the remaining four games of the La Liga campaign.

Barcelona sporting director, Txiki Begiristain, admitted this week that bringing in the likes of Henry, Gabriel Milito and Eric Abidal had last summer had failed to bring success, adding that, even had the Champions League final been reached, a post-mortem of the season would still have been wide-ranging.

The revolving door will be even busier in the upcoming off-season. In addition to Ronaldinho, thirty-somethings such as Henry, Gudjohnsen, Deco, Lilian Thuram and Gianluca Zambrotta could be given their cards. Meanwhile, it's set to be another busy summer for the tabloids as they speculate on who will be wearing the famous shirt next season.

Players aside, with Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola thought to be high on club president Joan Laporta's wanted list, the most obvious casualty of this underwhelming campaign will be Rijkaard. However, the coach will not be a long time unemployed unless he chooses to be. Offers are sure to come in, with AC Milan - with whom he won two European Cups as a player, a potential destination.

Even more intriguingly, particularly in light of his recent comments, another potential new home could be in London with Chelsea, which would allow the 46-year-old to learn at first hand just what is the advantage that English clubs currently have over their European rivals.

• Email newsdesk@soccernet.com with your thoughts.