By Andy Hall
FC Barcelona's 3-1 win in Tuesday's UEFA Champions League tie away to Celtic FC confirmed that the Catalan club are back among Europe's elite. The Blaugranas are in a trophy drought that has spanned the past six years, but under coach Frank Rijkaard and chairman Joan Laporta, they are serious contenders for silverware again.
It is not without irony that Celtic were to be Barça's first victims in Europe - it was the perfect riposte to the 1-0 defeat suffered in Glasgow in the UEFA Cup last season that saw Rijkaard's men bow out of the competition before the quarter-finals.
Only two seasons ago, Barcelona were struggling to lift themselves out of the doldrums. Not since the 1987/88 season had Barça finished outside the top four in the Primera División. By 2001, the team was shipping more than 50 goals a season and mired in the worst run in its history. In 2002/03, they scraped a sixth placing by the slimmest of margins. It was time for a change.
"We understood that the squad we had was not bearing fruit and that we needed to create a new set of players," technical director Txiki Begiristain told uefa.com. "It's difficult when you are working with the same players and things don't seem to be going right - that's when negativity starts creeping in and you have to look for a change."
Barça's revival began with Ronaldinho's arrival from Paris Saint-Germain FC in July 2003. The Brazilian revitalised the team and after a shaky start to last season's domestic campaign, Barça rose to take the runners-up slot thanks to a tremendous surge from the start of 2004. The signings of Deco, Ludovic Giuly, Sylvinho and Henrik Larsson in the summer have helped continue that form into the new season.
The club also won the signature of Cameroon international striker Samuel Eto'o - half-owned by Real Madrid CF. The acquisition of the pacey 23-year-old, the African Player of the Year, could prove to be one of the most decisive moves of the year. Tellingly, of the squad that started the 2000/01 season, only Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernández, Gerard López and Gabri García remain.
"We are working towards an idea based around the kind of football we think will work successfully and have selected players who we feel have the right profile," explained Begiristain. "This is not an experiment - the players we have brought in are experienced, intelligent professionals."
That class was certainly in evidence at Celtic, but Laporta insists that the season has only just begun. "This season is going to be a difficult one and for that reason it's important to keep our feet on the ground," he warned. "There are great teams in the Champions League and Barça is one of them, but getting carried away at this stage is not going to do us any good."
"We have enjoyed a good start but that's all," added Begiristain. "It's important to be optimistic and ready for all the hard work to come, but even then it doesn't mean that we are going to win all three trophies. We should not start thinking that the job is already finished before it has even started."
Believe the hype
A sensible approach, certainly, but having seen their side secure the first victory by a visiting team at Celtic Park in more than three years, avid Barcelona fans can be excused for getting just a little bit overexcited.
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