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The Camden Cad
Aug 24, 2004
North London
It's a sign of the times that two teams placed third in their domestic leagues can be led by managers under intense media pressure, but Barcelona's visit to Gelsenkirchen, home of Schalke 04, saw two halves of football that went a long way to explaining why.

Frank Rijkaard has come in for heavy criticism from the Spanish press for Barcelona's gradual deterioration from European Champions to La Liga also-rans. There are rumours that the Dutchman is too gentle with his players, cultivating a laissez-faire approach that has seen Ronaldinho grow soft around the edges and claim injury when the medical staff can find nothing wrong with him. Rijkaard politely took a press conference earlier this week, fielding questions in two different languages in an effort to calm the waters, but all the reporters wanted to ask him was whether he thought he was going to be sacked. After watching the way that his side took control of the first 45 minutes in Germany, he might have had a different, more defiant response for them.

Mirko Slomka, meanwhile, has never really been trusted by the German press because of his innate Steve McClaren-ness. He was Schalke's assistant manager and was a surprise choice for the hot-seat in January 2006. He has a tendency to grin at all the wrong moments and Schalke fans are wondering, as the England fans did before them, whether turning a number two into your number one is the wisest strategy. However, the second 45 minutes was, at times, a vibrant display of gung-ho attacking football that had the crowd on its feet.

Tragically, this is a cruel game, and the focus now is unlikely to be on the positives. After Bojan's opening goal in the 12th minute, forged on the left flank by a tenacious Thierry Henry assault, Barcelona's highly paid machinery simply ground to a halt. Five minutes before the break they were content to pass the ball around amongst themselves as if they were playing out the last stages of a pre-season friendly. In the second half, they barely created anything of note at all. This is not Barcelona's way. The Catalans are expected to play with verve and valour, they are expected to be the adventurer. They are not expected to be the man who strolls into his office at 9am, makes one phonecall and then spends the next eight hours messing about on his Facebook site.

Schalke knew that Rijkaard was under pressure and they knew that Barcelona would be rattled if they attacked from the first whistle. Surely then, Slomka would order his men to take the game to their visitors, to play a high line, to fight as if it was, you know, a Champions League knock-out match, maybe? Over 60,000 fans had arrived at this magnificent stadium to see their local heroes battle it out with the aristocracy of Europe and it's no surprise that they booed them off at half-time for their lack of endeavour. They improved after the break and began to get men forward to try and connect with Christian Pander's increasingly erratic set-pieces, but the decision to take off target man Kevin Kuryani with 25 minutes left was baffling and the fans, once again, let him know. You would have thought the 6ft 3inch striker would have delivered eventually, but it wasn't to be.

This game could have salvaged the reputation of at least one of the managers involved, but as it was, it did nothing for either of them. Rijkaard will be relieved to take an away goal back to the Nou Camp, but the style in which it was gained will do nothing to stem the flow of criticism from the fans. Likewise, the Schalke supporters might have had a bit more sympathy with their beleaguered manager had he actually made a fight of it before half the game had passed him by. The extraordinary meltdown of the Greek referee, who gave out one yellow card up until the 83rd minute and then quickly rattled out another seven, only confirmed the suspicion that this was a night that nobody would be able to look back on with any satisfaction.