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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

PREMIER REPORT

Barcelona-Arsenal final puts two great stars on a grand stage


PARIS -- There are signs around the Nou Camp reminding everyone that Barcelona is "more than a club." There should also be signs in Catalonia to say that Ronaldinho is "more than a player."

Christopher Davies

The Brazil international was, needless to say, the star attraction at the club's Champions League final media day after a training session that left observers cursing coach Frank Rijkaard when he called an end to probably the best hour's entertainment of the season.

Watching Barcelona play can be breathtaking; to see its international superstars in training where they can display their technique and control without fear of being clattered, is something else.

While one or two players treated talking to the press on a par with visiting the dentist to have root canal treatment -- Xavi did the old mobile phone to the ear trick to avoid talking to the media -- Ronaldinho's trademark smile rarely left probably the best known face in football.

The Brazil international is surely the only player guaranteed a place in every fan's World XI. Anyone omitting Ronaldinho would have a harder job justifying his omission that King Canute embarked on.

The prospect of seeing the best player on the planet go head-to-head with Thierry Henry of Arsenal, who has valid claims to be the runnerup to Ronaldinho, in the Champions League final Wednesday is the most mouth-watering of finales to the European season.

Paris, where Henry was born and where Ronaldinho first came to European attention, may not see the drama provided by Liverpool and AC Milan in Istanbul a year ago, but not since Ajax's Johan Cruyff faced Franz Beckenbauer of Bayern Munich has there been such an eagerly awaited clash.

It is difficult to believe that when Ronaldinho joined Paris St. Germain in Feb 2001 -- his debut was delayed 129 days as Gremio appealed to FIFA and was eventually awarded a fee of £3.6 million -- it was his fancy footwork in the capital's discos rather than his trademark stepovers that made him a talking point.

"He does not lead the life of a world-class athlete," said PSG coach Luis Fernandez, but when Ronaldinho chose Barcelona ahead of Manchester United in 2003, it was only the bright lights of the Nou Camp that he starred under.

Similarly, it is forgotten that it was the arrival on loan of Edgar Davids from Inter Milan in January 2004 that put Ronaldinho and Barcelona on the road to where it is now.

With Davids, now at Tottenham, a one-man hit squad in midfield, it freed Ronaldinho to concentrate on attacking and he ended the season with 15 goals with Barcelona embarking on a 17-match unbeaten run.

The last two seasons have seen Barcelona win La Liga but Ronaldinho is aware that the club has underachieved in the European Cup, the solitary win in 1992 putting them alongside Aston Villa and Steaua Bucharest in the roll of honor.

"It's special for me to go back to a city that I love for the final of the Champions League, which is the biggest game there is in club football," he said.

"When I came here I only had one objective and that is to win the most important titles like the La Liga title, which we have, and the Champions League.

"Now we are very close to fulfilling this dream for us and for all the fans. When I had to decide whether to join Barcelona, I had two or three other teams interested in me.

"I had to decide which team would be the best for me and which team I could benefit the most. I had to think about where I could adapt most quickly and what would be best for my career as a footballer. I am delighted with the decision I took and now I am where I am and I am enjoying it so much.

"It's fantastic living here. Right from my first day I have always been treated with a lot of love and that's so important. There isn't a place in the city where I'm not loved and can go to enjoy myself. When you're winning titles there's nothing better than enjoying this feeling that we've got right now." Ronaldinho does not see the final as a showdown between himself and Henry, who will announce later this month whether he will sign a new contract with Arsenal, where his current deal has a year to run.

The France striker has been linked with a move to Barcelona and Ronaldinho said: "Henry is a player who has a lot of quality and with the quality he has he could go to any team in the world and make it better. He is so good technically, has great pace and has a lot of force. He has the characteristics of a player that could adapt to any team in the world.

"I'm not thinking to myself that in the final I can impress him and convince him to join us. That's not my priority. My objective is to do my best for my team.

"It won't be me that makes his decision for him, but I can say that it's always a good thing to have great players in your team and that is what we have here. The door is always open here for the greatest players."

Both Ronaldinho and Henry have World Cup winners' medals but the Brazilian would love to bring European glory to his adopted city.

"You get very few opportunities in your career to live a moment like this.

"How can you not be happy?

"I'm more than happy and I am really motivated to play in this game and do my best. I think the key for us will be to play like we always do and not try to change things because it's a final.

"I hope I'm the man-of-the-match! Ha Ha.

"But seriously, I have every confidence in all my teammates that we will produce a great performance and they have every confidence in me. I am very calm that we will be at our best. This is a great club and it has always had a very good side. We have only won the European Cup once. We will give everything to change that.

"There is no other trophy that we want to win more. Since I came to Europe I've always dreamed of playing in a match like this and winning this trophy."

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal, Chelsea and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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