Barca try to play down row

The public row between Barcelona’s Samuel Eto’o and Ronaldinho was played down publicly yesterday as the pair had a training ground hug to give the impression they were friends again. Whether the reconciliation was genuine or not remains to be seen, but Barcelona clearly felt they need to do some public relations work.

Liverpool travel to the Nou Camp next week for the first leg of their Champions League tie and the public row over the weekend – also including coach Frank Rijkaard – played into Liverpool’s hands to a certain extent.

Rijkaard told a press conference after Barca’s 2-0 win on Sunday over Racing Santander that Eto’o had refused point-blank to come on as a sub for the last four minutes of the game. Eto’o was disgusted at the way his coach had spoken about him and told this to the press: “Telling a news conference I didn’t want to play is the behaviour of a bad person.”  Ronaldinho had also attacked Eto’o, saying that he should think of the team first, and so also got some criticism from Eto’o.

As well as the hug, the club arranged for captain Carlos Puyol to announce the row had been resolved: “We had a meeting between the captains of the team and then spoke to Ronaldinho and Eto’o because it was an important enough matter to talk over together,” Puyol said. “Ronnie’s comments were misinterpreted. When they both met today it was clear Ronnie did not want to criticise Eto’o. Eto’o has no problem with Rijkaard either.”

Barca know they’ve got to hide any outwards signs of trouble, but it does seem that rather than getting over their differences, everyone’s just decided to try and be professional about it. Puyol tried hard to make out it was more than that though, that team spirit is good: “People think there is a time bomb in the dressing room but that isn’t true. Rijkaard has got the team under control, Eto’o has a good relationship with the rest of the group and the atmosphere is good. Outside the dressing room there may be divisions but not inside. We need to be 100 percent united as we have got a difficult set of matches coming up.”

Barca’s sporting director Txiki Begiristain said that Rijkaard has asked for Eto’o not to be punished for his behaviour: “Frank said no punishments were necessary because he was confident the team could sort these things out themselves,” said Begiristain. Rijkaard says that the storm doesn’t change how he feels about the player: “This won’t affect my relationship with Eto’o; we have to look to the future.”

Local press claimed that Eto’o and Ronaldhino’s row was serious enough that one would have to leave at the end of the season, and that Rijkaard was already considering leaving then thanks to the internal politics at the club.

Eto’o has been out for four months with a knee injury and said his refusal to come on as a late sub was because he needed a longer warm up, and he claims he’s a doubt for the Champions League tie with the Reds next week. Have Barca been trying to rush Eto’o and his team mate Messi back too soon? According to Liverpool boss Rafa Benítez they might have: “Yes, I think they have been trying to push these players back quickly for this game.”

Liverpool are away on a training camp in Portugal ahead of the game, with no match this weekend due to their early exit from the FA Cup. Rafa told the official website that the Barca game has been a hot topic of conversation at the club: “Everyone is very excited about this game. They have been talking about it almost every day for the last two months. Their team is really good and when the draw was made people were saying Barcelona are the best team in the world.”

Rafa feels Liverpool have improved since the draw was made, whilst at the same time Barca have hit some problems, notably with the absence of Eto’o and Messi: “After two months we are a lot better and they have had some problems. They need Eto’o fit, and Messi, because they haven’t been scoring a lot of goals. They are really strong, they are not playing at the same level but if they have Eto’o, Messi and Ronaldinho then I think they have very good players.”

Benitez says he’s familiar with many of Barca’s players: “They have some foreign players and I know Messi. I also know Eto’o as he was in the academy at Real Madrid when I was there, so I have good relations with them.”

Liverpool aren’t favourites by any means going into this game, but are still confident that they are able to get something out of it: “It could be good for us to be underdogs. I think that it is important for us as we will not have big pressure there. It will be hard there, but it will be good for us to score. Always for us to play the second leg at Anfield is important and we need to score in Barcelona if it’s possible. Liverpool have never lost at the Nou Camp and they have played three times. I would like to keep this record. It’s a difficult stadium to play in but we have confidence. We know it will be a hard game because Barcelona is a difficult team. We know about them, but we will try our best and I have confidence we can do a good job.”