Only league title left for declining Barcelona


Madrid : Is the Barcelona team that was supposed to dominate Spanish – and European – football throughout this decade now in a terminal crisis?

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Does Thursday's 4-0 cup thrashing by Getafe signify the beginning of the end for Ronaldinho and company?

How can such an exhilarating, relatively young team decline so quickly?

Can Barca now pick up the pieces and hold off the challenge of Real Madrid in the race for the Liga title.

These are the questions being asked by bewildered FC Barcelona fans Friday, the morning after their cup semi-final humiliation in Getafe.

"This one the most depressing displays by Barca," said the digital version of Sport straight afterward, "since Frank Rijkaard took charge in 2003."

Indeed it was. The Barca defence was even more chaotic than usual this season, the midfield sorely missed the energy and character of the injured Deco, Ronaldinho turned in yet another dull display – and Samuel Eto'o looked nothing like the deadly executioner he has been since signing with the Catalans in 2004.

The Getafe meltdown means that the team that was supposed to win five trophies this season now only has the Liga title to play for.

Barca are just two points ahead of in-form Real with five games left.

The beginning of the season – with its exuberant hopes and expectations – now seems distant.

In July 2006, Lilian Thuram, Gianluca Zambrotta and Eidur Gudjohnsen arrived in Barcelona to further strengthen a squad that had just proclaimed itself champions of Spain and all Europe.

In August, Barca hammered local rivals in the Spanish Super Cup, and the Catalan media and fans began dreaming – even expecting – a historic sweep of all five trophies.

Things started to go wrong in September when Eto'o suffered cartilage damage in Bremen. The Cameroon striker would be out for six months, and without him Barca would be short of goals.

In October, Argentine wonder-kid Lionel Messi was the next long-term injury victim.

In December, Barca flew to Japan for the Club World Championship – and returned without the trophy, tired and frustrated.

January started a long, depressing series of away defeats in La Liga, which would allow resurgent Real to catch up.

In February, Eto'o, still out of action, infamously attacked Ronaldinho for rarely turning up for training, then called Rijkaard a "really bad person."

In March, Liverpool took advantage of the Eto'o injury – and of some appalling defending – to knock Barca off their European throne.

April brought defeats at Zaragoza and Villarreal – and yet more rumours that Eto'o, Ronaldinho and Rijkaard were considering jumping ship.

Last week, defender Jose Edmilson tried to nip the crisis talk in the bud by claiming that Barca were on course for the club's first league-and-cup double since 1998.

Now all that is left for them is to fight to retain the Liga crown they have worn since 2005.

Success in La Liga might delay the departure of the stars and keep Rijkaard's team together for another year or so.

Failure will surely mean the break-up of a side that promised so much, but failed – in the final analysis – to make the qualitative jump from good team to truly great team.