FC Barcelona are not the kind of side you would usually associate with the UEFA Intertoto Cup. However, after a disappointing season which has seen them struggle in Spain, the club has decided to apply to play in this summer's competition.
The Barcelona hierarchy said the move was a "safety measure" and they were "confident" of getting into Europe by more traditional means. However, defeat against Juventus FC in last week's UEFA Champions League quarter-finals has extinguished their hopes of a place in the competition next season, and Radomir Antic's team must now find the consistency which has eluded them all season if they are to secure a place in the UEFA Cup.
Eleven defeats in 31 league games hardly inspires confidence in the Catalan outfit, although Sunday's 2-1 home win against high-flying Real Sociedad could prove crucial to their hopes. Barcelona remain 12th in the table but are just two points off sixth position - the final UEFA Cup berth. They could yet avoid the ignominy of a first-ever failure to qualify directly for UEFA competition.
Worst of times
However, the Blaugrana are only seven points off the relegation places, which is indicative of a campaign which has seen the best of times in the Champions League, and the worst of times in the Primera División. Despite a record eleven straight victories in Europe's premier club competition, Barça endured their worst opening half to a domestic season in 15 years, culminating in a 2-0 reverse at RC Celta de Vigo on 26 January.
That defeat signalled the end of Louis van Gaal's eight-month reign as coach. A combination of poor results and the Dutchman's cool relationship with the Spanish press had put unbearable pressure on the club, and Van Gaal left after agreeing a financial settlement with president Joan Gaspart and his board. The subsequent appointment of the media-savvy Antic lifted the gloom and sparked a run of seven league matches without defeat.
"The good results softened the atmosphere between the team and the supporters," Antic said. "
It is our duty to have a relationship with the fans and to restore their pride. I am privileged to be leading Barcelona and we have to show in our performances that Barcelona have a particular style of play and aren't afraid to play that way." Striking talisman Patrick Kluivert added: "Antic's ideas have gone down well with the players. He seems to know what we want and gets things done quickly."
But if the Serbian has brought a degree of dignity to Barça, his good work is threatened by behind-the-scenes conflict. Gaspart brought his two-and-a-half year tenure as president to a close in February, with Enric Reyna taking over on a temporary basis. However, the club announced last week that Reyna would step down in May along with the rest of the board, paving the way for presidential elections in June.
The early favourite is Lluís Bassat, who lost out to Gaspart last time around, although there are other candidates in Jordi Majó, Josep Martínez Rovira, Jordi Medina and, possibly, Josep Maria Minguella. Whoever wins will face a difficult rebuilding job. Money is scarce at Barcelona and the club will have to sell before they can buy players.
Applying for the Intertoto Cup may satisfy Barcelona's hunger for European football for a season, but as Gaspart's successor is sure to discover, satisfying the supporters' lust for success after four barren years without a trophy may prove a much more difficult task.
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