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Bayern and Barça blown off course

Well placed in the UEFA Champions League, FC Bayern München and FC Barcelona are not enjoying the best of times domestically.

When the UEFA Champions League shut down for the winter break, the players of FC Bayern München and FC Barcelona put away their passports with considerable reason for optimism.

Picture less rosy
Bayern's two Champions League second group stage games had brought them four points and joint leadership of Group A with their old rivals Manchester United FC. Barcelona were sitting pretty at the top of Group B with an identical points total, having impressed with a superb 3-1 win at Liverpool FC in late November. Fast forward some seven weeks and the picture is less rosy.

Seven matches without a win
Bayern first: the reigning German and European champions suffered their heaviest loss since 1994 last weekend as they crashed 5-1 at FC Schalke 04. The defeat in Gelsenkirchen made it seven matches without a win - their worst run in 32 years - and
left Bayern fifth in the 1. Bundelsiga table, eight points behind leaders 1. FC Kaiserslautern.
'A laughing stock'
It also prompted angry words from two of the club's key figures, president Franz Beckenbauer and midfield player Stefan Effenberg. In a newspaper column on Monday, Beckenbauer warned that Bayern were on their way to "becoming a laughing stock". After claiming that "the championship race is practically over", Beckenbauer continued: "Why did they [the players] let themselves be slaughtered like that without putting up a fight?"

Lack of fight
Effenberg also lamented this perceived lack of fight when he said: "Against Schalke it was abundantly clear who was trying hard and who wasn't." The former German international, in his final season in Bavaria, added: "It's time for the trainer [Ottmar Hitzfeld] to make the right decisions. He has to put the players on the field who have the right desire. I am sick and tired of protecting the others, I am not going to stick my neck out for the others any more."

Hitzfeld faces challenge
Public in-fighting of this kind brings to mind the club's sometime sobriquet 'FC Hollywood' and, on the face of it, can do little to help their cause. The club may carry a swagger but Hitzfeld faces a major challenge to restore confidence in time for the resumption of Champions League action in late February.

Vote of confidence
At least Hitzfeld, winner of the Champions League with both Bayern and BV Borussia Dortmund, is not receiving a dreaded vote of confidence. Barcelona's Carles Rexach received just that on Sunday, following the 1-0 home defeat by lowly Club Atlético Osasuna that had the Camp Nou gallery waving white handkerchiefs in disgust. Club president Joan Gaspart told reporters: "Rexach will continue in his post."

Eighth in the table
Barcelona have won three and lost five of their last ten games, a stuttering run of form made all the less bearable by the climb to the top of the Primera División by their great rivals Real Madrid CF. The Blaugrana now sit eighth in the table, seven points behind Madrid, and victories over Real Zaragoza and Sevilla FC at the start of the year - not to mention that scintillating success at Anfield - have been fast forgotten.

'Only we can fix this'
On the surface the players remain confident they can revive their fortunes. "Only we can fix this," said striker Patrick Kluivert. "It's not the coach's problem but the players." His fellow Dutchman Marc Overmars said: "We can turn it around." Gaspart himself insisted: "We are not a club in crisis." A view, alas, not shared by the group of fans who, calling for Gaspart's head, attacked club security guards and a television crew in the VIP area of the Camp Nou on Sunday night.

Patience at a premium
As with Bayern, expectations are sky high in Catalonia and when these expectations are not met, patience - from pressmen and the public - is often at a premium. Against this backdrop, both teams will look to kick-start their domestic campaigns, in time, they will hope, to be back in the winning business when the Champions League returns next month.