Barcelona began the “Laporta Era” at one of the toughest venues in Spain: San Mames, Bilbao. An 11th minute strike from utility man Phillip Cocu meant Rijkaard began with all 3 points. Their next opponents at home were Sevilla. The Andalusians took the lead with a penalty from Reyes after just 8 minutes. Ronaldinho showed why Barcelona were wrong in pursuing Beckham instead of him on his home Liga debut.
The wonder strike meant that the spoils were shared. A decent result against a side that would eventually finish 6th. In the following weeks Los Cules blew hot and cold but stayed undefeated until their first big test: Rafa Benitez’s Valencia at Camp Nou. Valencia would leave with maximum points thanks to an early strike from Ricardo Oliveira. They would suffer their 2nd defeat in as many home games against Javier Irureta’s Superdepor. New saviour Ronaldinho missed the defeat to the Galicians.
Barcelona somewhat steadied the ship by picking up 7 points out of 9 in the subsequent 3 rounds. In the last match against Real Sociedad, Ronaldinho injured his hamstring and was expected to be sidelined for a month. The Ronaldinho-less Barcelona began with a 2-1 win over Real Betis thanks to a late strike from centreback Rafa Marquez. Alas, that was as good as it got. The lost 1-2 to Villarreal and drew 0-0 with Valladolid. Their last fixture before the 1st El Clasico of the season was a trip to the south coast of Malaga. Barcelona were thumped 1-5 where all the 6 goals were scored by the Andalusians. Armed with the newest Mancunian galactico, Real Madrid won their 1st away La Liga Clasico in 19 years at the Camp Nou.
There were calls for Rijkaard to be fired but Johan Cruijff told Laporta that despite the poor run of results the squad was playing well and it was a matter of time before the results pick up. He advised the Catalan to be patient. Ronaldinho returned the next week to face their cross town rivals Espanyol. Barcelona won the local derby and drew their last fixture before the winter break against Celta Vigo. At the winter break, Barcelona were 12th in the league with 24 points (6W, 6D, 6L), 7 points above the relegation zone and 18 points behind their bitter rivals, Real Madrid at the top.
The Turning point: Enter “The Pitbull”
Barcelona lost their first match after the winter break to Recreativo 3-0. It would be just their 2nd defeat with Ronaldinho since the loss to Valencia. The Catalans were looking for some reinforcements in the winter and they were handed an unhappy Juventus midfielder, the bespectacled Edgar Steven Davids.
With Ronaldinho back to full fitness and the feisty Davids, Barcelona went on tear. After a draw 1-1 draw with Athletic Bilbao, Barcelona won 9 matches in a row, a subset of 11 undefeated matches. This included a 1-0 mugging at title hopefuls Valencia and a barely believable 3-2 win over Deportivo La Coruna in Galicia. After trailing 0-3, Depor scored 2 goals in 7 minutes before Albert Luque missed an open goal for an equalizer minutes before the end. The highlight of this run was without a doubt the Kung Fu style goal by Ronaldinho.
This winning streak cut down Real Madrid’s lead from 18 points to just 6 and Barcelona leapfrogged to 3rd place. A slightly stumbling run of 2 wins and 2 draws left the Catalans 7 points behind joint leaders Real Madrid & Valencia before the return Clasico at the intimidating Santiago Bernabeu. Barcelona were battered in the 1st half by Real Madrid but hung on till half time. The one way traffic continued even after the restart and Real Madrid took a deserved lead 9 minutes into the 2nd half through the elegant Santi Solari. The visitors almost immediately (4 minutes later) equalized through Patrick Kluivert with virtually his first touch after coming on for Saviola.
The remainder of the game was on a knife’s edge through out with both teams creating a decent amount of chances. It was finally settled by, what else, a Ronaldinho scoop over the defence that Xavi lobbed over the onrushing Casillas. Ivan Helguera’s attempt to clear the ball off the line bobbled it into the net and Barcelona led 2-1 with just 4 minutes to go before injury time. The jaw-droppingest moment in a season full of jaw-dropping brilliance by the man from Porto Alegre.
With Valencia drawing at Bilbao later in the day, Barcelona trailed them by just 5 points with 4 matches left in the season. An outside chance to win their 1st league title in 5 years perhaps. Los Cules kept the pressure up with a double over their cross town rivals Espanyol to stay unbeaten for 17 matches. Unfortunately, their dream would be ended by Celta Vigo who beat them 1-0 and Valencia wrapped up a 2nd title in 3 years with a 2-0 win over Sevilla at the Sanchez Pizjuan. Real Madrid ended their season with 5 straight defeats and Barcelona topped them to finish 2nd and earn a direct place in the group stages of the Champions league next year.
The Glorious Run continues
FC Barcelona went from strength to strength next season by signing Giuly, Eto’o & Deco to win the La liga for the 1st time in 6 years. Their run in the Champions league was ended by an inspired Chelsea. The season would also see some 17 year old named Leo Messi make his 1st team debut after training with them the previous year. Barcelona would retain the league in 2006 and also win the Champion league for the first time in 14 years by beating Arsenal 2-1 in the Parc des Princes. Despite a few hiccups, the Catalans have enjoyed the most successful decade in their history. A decade that has produced 4 UEFA Champions league titles, 7 Las Ligas, 3 Copas del Rey and 3 FIFA Club World cups. The seeds of this success were sown in 2003 which is the club’s 2nd biggest turning point since the return of Johan Cruijff as manager in 1988. May this glorious run continue!