By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
They were supposed to define an era. The Barcelona team led so brilliantly on the pitch by Ronaldinho and off it by Frank Rijkaard claimed the Champions League in 2006, a triumph tipped to mark the beginning of an exciting epoque. Yet what followed for the Catalan club in the next two trophyless seasons was not dynastic dominance, but dramatic decline. And after a fantastic four-year spell under Pep Guardiola, Barcelona fans fear something similar now.
Lose out to AC Milan in the last 16 of the Champions League on Tuesday and this Barcelona team will pass from world beaters to mere mortals in the space of less than a year. Surprisingly edged out by an ultra-defensive Chelsea in the semi-finals of last season's competition, Barca were not expected to fall foul this time around. Indeed, when the draw for the last 16 was made in December, Real Madrid's meeting with Manchester United grabbed all the attention. Barca against Milan may be a European Clasico of sorts, but few gave the Italians much hope of negotiating this test; after all, this Rossoneri team lost out to the Catalans in last season's competition, and with a side subsequently stripped of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva in the summer, what chance would they have this time?
|BARCA IN THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE SINCE WINNING IT IN 2006
|Last 16 (lost to Liverpool)
Semi-finals (lost to Man Utd)
Winners (beat United in final)
Semi-finals (lost to Inter)
Winners (beat United in final)
Semi-finals (lost to Chelsea)
However, a side capable of such greatness should not and cannot be written off. Barcelona's players know as well as anyone that failure to overcome this hurdle will increase scrutiny and spark talk of an end to their magnificent cycle. And as Xavi has said, perhaps the one ingredient missing from this brilliant Barca in recent seasons is a comeback of epic proportions.
So now is the time.
Although their form has let them down of late, Barcelona remain the finest football team in this competition. In terms of talent, trophies and trajectory, no side can match Tito's team - but they have to prove it.
Cesc Fabregas recently claimed that this team cannot be judged on three games, in reference to the two defeats to Madrid and the loss in Milan. But he is mistaken; it is against the finest rivals when the best teams are judged - and Barcelona have lost all three of those battles.
Whatever happens on Tuesday night, the side's legacy is probably intact thanks to their 14 trophies under Guardiola between 2009 and 2012. Whether Barca will be remembered as the greatest ever may depend on their ability to continue their current cycle, however, and that can only start by overcoming Milan. The Copa del Rey may be gone, but La Liga looks sewn up and if progress can be sealed in the Champions League, these last few weeks will be seen merely as a chink in the side's considerable armour rather than a deep and debilitating wound. A comeback can inspire this team to great heights and act as a platform upon which to achieve a third continental crown in the space of five seasons, but Tuesday represents a night of judgement - a time to deliver.
As Guardiola constantly reminded his men: You are only as good as your last game. Barcelona's players would do well to remember those words at 8:45pm on Tuesday evening. So it may be all about winning only one trophy, but miss out to Milan in the last 16 of the Champions League, and there will be so much more to lose.
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