Eto'o back to face Barça challenge
Star striker supports coach Rijkaard as club enters decisive phase of season20 February 2008
MADRID - Just when the team needs him most, Barcelona soccer club will count on the return of its striker Samuel Eto'o, who will be available for inclusion in Frank Rijkaard's line-up ahead of tonight's Champions League encounter against Glasgow Celtic (Canal +, 8.45pm). This will be the first time that the fiery Cameroonian forward has donned Barça's claret-and-blue strip since the middle of January when he left for the Africa Cup of Nations.
With Barcelona at a cross-roads, now five points behind Real Madrid in La Liga after last weekend's important win at Real Zaragoza, and about to play its first last-16 knockout round in the Champions League, his timing couldn't be better.
Director of soccer at Barcelona Txiki Begiristain yesterday highlighted the importance of the current moment for the club, challenging his players to show "how far they can go."
"We are back in the Liga race, in the semifinals of the King's Cup and in the last 16 of the Champions League, and the most important and decisive moment of the season is upon us - the moment that will decide the future of the team."
While Eto'o has denied claims his return will supply a magic elixir for the team's success, the numbers - his own five league goals in six games this season, and the club's drought in his absence - suggest a different story. "I'm not the team's saviour," he argued before leaving for Glasgow. "I am only trying to do my job the best I can, but I can't score goals without the help of my team," he said at a press conference yesterday.
However, scoring goals has been Barcelona's Achilles' heel of sorts since the New Year, with Eto'o absent for the team's last eight games.
Frustrated coach Frank Rijkaard's various offensive combinations, involving veteran Thierry Henry and youngsters Giovanni dos Santos and Bojan Krkic have not produced the results on the scoreboard the team had hoped for. Now, with a rested Eto'o and recuperated Leo Messi, Barça has a full offensive arsenal to call on again, although there have been few signs of late that Ronaldinho - the other member of the so-called "fantastic four" of forwards alongside Henry, Messi and Eto'o - has recovered either his form of Rijkaard's faith in his commitment to the cause.
Not one to mince words, Eto'o was also quick to show his distaste about rumours of a mid-season Rijkaard replacement, defending the coach with whom "we have won it all," and with whom "we will win it all again." The striker argued that before the Dutch trainer's arrival five years ago, "Barça had not won anything in a while." Under Rijkaard, the club has won two Liga titles and one Champions League, but his future has come under scrutiny since Barça surrendered its lead in the league to eventual champion Real Madrid last season.
While Rijkaard's position is not up for grabs yet, what is certain is that a number of recent slip-ups on the part of league leader Real have offered a crucial reprieve for the second-placed Catalan side and its coach. The gap that seemed to be blown open after Real's 7-0 thrashing of Valladolid two weeks ago (eight points), was closed to five last weekend when the champion lost its second game in three matches, this time to Real Betis, as Barcelona scrabbled three points from Zaragoza thanks to a late Ronaldinho penalty.
According to Begiristain, the win was "important, in terms of mood and confidence," although no one could claim that the current form of Rijkaard's star-studded team was anything approaching as good as that which took it to Europe's top prize two seasons ago.
Also tonight, Sevilla faces a difficult away leg in its last-16 match against Fenerbahçe of Istanbul, a team currently second in the Turkish league and now home to former Real Madrid star Roberto Carlos. Real Madrid was playing at Roma at press time on Tuesday.
[Copyright EL PAÍS / KELLY RAMUNDO 2008]
Subject: Spanish news