Despite the great successes Barcelona had between 2004 and 2006, it was by no means an easy ride for the Catalan superclub. When Joan Laporta became the President of the club in 2003 Barcelona looked like a club in trouble.
The Catalans were without a trophy for years, they won their last league title in 1999, the team also underperformed during the 2002/03 season by finishing sixth in the league, thus they missed out on the Champions League. The finances of the club were also chaotic as Barcelona became indebted, to make it even worse the squad was full of ageing players with big salaries.
Laporta was supported by his friend, the club legend Johann Cruyff, he followed his friend’s advice and had the relatively inexperienced Frank Rijkaard appointed as the new manager of the club. Frustratingly Barcelona missed out on the signing of David Beckham who rather chose their rivals Real Madrid, instead, they signed Brazilian forward Ronaldinho. They also signed centre back Rafa Marquez and full back Gio van Bronkhorst that summer, neither became as important to the team as Ronaldinho, however they were still regular starters during their title-winning seasons.
The season started disastrously for Barcelona and after 18 rounds they were only 12th in the league. The supporters were angry and many wanted manager Rijkaard sacked, a radical group of Barcelona supporters even threatened Laporta.
Despite the poor results, the board stuck by Rijkaard and after the arrival of Edgar Davids, the team’s form improved dramatically from January on.
Barcelona went on a 17 match unbeaten run and was within striking distance of leaders Valencia with 3 games remaining. Unluckily for them, they lost 2 of the last 3 games and finished the season second, 5 points behind champions Valencia. Still despite the disappointment of another trophyless season the second half of the season gave hope to the Barcelona fans that the team was on the rise again. New signing Ronaldinho was in superb form throughout the season, he scored in total 21 goals in all competitions and became a fan favourite in the Nou Camp.
The first title in 6 years
In the summer of 2004 several players of the old guard were phased out, Dutch trio Kluivert, Cocu and Reiziger had their contracts terminated, Overmars and Louis Enrique retired, another two regular starters of the 2003/04 team Javier Saviola and Luis Garcia left the team also. Their place was taken by new signings Samuel Eto’o, Henrik Larsson, Ludovic Giuly, Deco, Edmilson and Juliano Belletti.
The team continued their excellent form of the second half of the 2003/04 season, they won 8 of their first 10 matches, in November they met their arch-rivals Real Madrid in the Camp Nou and won the match 3-0. Barcelona also progressed from the group stage of the Champions League finishing second in their group behind AC Milan. Barcelona took the lead in the standings in September and they never looked back after, they were runaway leaders for most of the season. An improved Real Madrid closed the gap late season but they were unable to catch the Catalans.
Barcelona faced Chelsea in the last 16 of the Champions League, they edged Jose Mourinho’s team 2-1 in the first leg, Chelsea played with 10 men after Droga received a red card, a decision which Mourinho heavily criticized. In the second leg, Chelsea had a superb start to the match and was 3-0 up after only 19 minutes, thanks to Ronaldinho’s double Barca came back into the match only to be knocked out of the competition after a controversial goal by John Terry.
Rijkaard’s team finally broke the trophyless spell of Barcelona in 2005 after they won the league title, despite their early elimination from the Champions League the Catalans impressed fans and pundits alike with their results and style of play, and many even regarded them as the best team of the season.
After the huge overhaul of the previous season, the summer of 2005 was relatively quiet, Barcelona lost no player who were regular starters the previous season and signed Dutch midfielder Mark van Bommel and Spanish striker Santiago Ezquero.
Rijkaard’s team had a relatively slow start to the season and only 2 of their first 7 games, the slow start was followed by 14 wins on the trot, including a 3-0 win in the Bernabeu against Real Madrid, Ronaldinho had the game of his life and received a standing ovation by the Real fans when he was substituted.
By the time the winning streak came to an end in February Barca was miles ahead in the title race.
The results were also achieved with a free-flowing attacking style of football that many came to associate with Barcelona, Ronaldinho was in fine form and for his superb year, he won the Balon d’Or in 2005. Ronaldinho was the crown jewel of Rijkaard’s Barcelona without a doubt, however other players like Samuel Eto’o, Deco, Carles Puyol just to name a few were also in superb form, a young Lionel Messi also started to play more and more during the 2005/06 season.
Barcelona breezed through their group in the Champions League, in the last 16 they faced Mourinho’s Chelsea once again.
Chelsea went a man down when full-back Asier del Horno got sent off for a foul on Messi, ten men Chelsea still took the lead after an own goal by Motta, the Catalans were not disheartened nonetheless and turned the score round thanks to an own goal by John Terry and a Samuel Eto’o header. Barcelona had other good chances and could have settled the qualification in the first match if they had converted a couple of those. Still, the match ended 2-1, and thanks to the away goal rule Ronaldinho and co were in a very strong position before the second leg. The second leg ended with a 1-1 draw and Barca progressed to the Quarter-finals.
In the quarter-finals, they faced Portuguese side Benfica and progressed to the Semi-finals with an aggregate score of 2-0.
In the Semi-finals Barca faced Italian giant AC Milan, the Italians had a superb team at the time and put Barca to a real test during the two legs. Milan had a couple of good chances in the first leg, unfortunately for them, they were unable to convert any, and Barca won thanks to a Ludovic Giuly goal from a superb pass from Ronaldinho. The second leg ended in a 0-0 draw which saw Barca progress to the final. The league was won by this time and Rijkaard was even able to field weakened starting elevens during the last two league games.
In the Champions League final, Barca faced Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. Arsenal started the game well and had a couple of early chances, after a slow start Barca started to take control of the game and in the 18th minute Eto’o was clear on goal when Arsenal keeper Lehman brought him down. Lehman was sent off immediately and left his team a man down for the rest of the match. Still, Arsenal managed to take the lead thanks to a headed goal of Sol Campbell.
Thanks to their numerical superiority Barcelona were dominating possession and had a few chances, Eto’o even hit the woodwork but failed the find an equaliser until the 76th minute. Rijkaard replaced van Bommel with Henrik Larsson in the 61st minute and the veteran Swedish striker was the game-changer for Barcelona. Larsson set up both Barca goals and inspired his team to the Champions League title in his last match for the club.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Andrew Szekler