FOX Soccer Exclusive
Will Becks down his old nemeses Barca?
As David Beckham pulls on his Paris Saint-Germain shirt in the away locker-room at Barcelona’s Camp Nou before Wednesday’s Champions League quarterfinal second leg (live, FOX Soccer, Wednesday, 2 p.m. ET) he will perhaps be wondering what might have been.
For Beckham once had the opportunity to make himself at home in Catalonia, almost ten years ago, but he turned it down.
In June 2003, after his relationship with former manager Sir Alex Ferguson had soured, Manchester United surprisingly announced it had agreed to sell Beckham to Barcelona, should then presidential candidate Joan Laporta win that summer’s election.With Beckham apparently in the bag, Laporta went on to win the vote. But he lost out on the player.
The Englishman preferred to team up with fellow galacticos Zinedine Zidane, [the Brazilian] Ronaldo and Luis Figo at Barca’s bitter rivals Real Madrid. In doing so he disappointed a Barca side then going through a slump, but whose breakthrough generation headed by Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi [then only 14 but already much talked about] would soon come to dominate Spanish, and European, football.
That decision heated the atmosphere on Beckham's first visit to Barcelona as a Madrid player in December 2003. Catalan fans unfurled a banner saying, in English: "Beckham is a wanker." But he had the last laugh, as Los Blancos ended a 20 year wait for a Camp Nou win with a 2-1 victory. "Beating Barcelona as a Madrid player in front of 98,000 [fans] is just as sweet as winning the European Cup," Beckham said that night.
He was remembering United's spectacular 1999 trophy win at the ground. Becks' happy memories of Barca also include a superb free-kick goal in a 3-3 draw as a United player in 1998, and an equally special strike in LA Galaxy’s 2-1 win over Barca in 2009. Most recently, there was last week’s unexpectedly prominent performance in Tuesday’s creditable 2-2 first leg draw at Parc des Princes.
“Barcelona are a very special team with special players,” Beckham, now 37, said last week. “It is never easy going to the Camp Nou, they play football beautifully, [but] we will go there with confidence.”
That confidence has since been boosted by the uncertainty over Messi’s fitness. The Argentine went into the first leg having scored in each of his last 19 La Liga games, and with 43 goals in 29 domestic outings alone this season. In the Champions League, he had seven in eight, and added another after 39 minutes at the Parc des Princes, slamming a left-foot volley to the PSG net to put his side in front.
Barca fans' joy immediately turned to concern though, as Messi clutched his right thigh, and was substituted soon afterwards. He watched the remainder of the game - Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s offside goal, Xavi’s penalty and Blaise Matuidi’s injury time equalizer - from the bench.
Tests the next day confirmed a thigh muscle strain, but gave no clear recovery time. Were this a normal game he would face a longer spell out, but Barca’s Champions League future is on the line. So he has been undergoing heavy physiotherapy and recovery work at its Ciutat Esportiva each day since, and looks set for a place on the bench on Wednesday - at least.
Fears over Messi’s absence were lessened - in part - by the performance of Cesc Fabregas in his stead during Saturday’s 5-0 La Liga win over Real Mallorca. Fabregas, the focus of grumbles from the Camp Nou crowd as his form dipped in recent months, bagged the first hat trick of his senior career.
It was the first treble by a Barcelona player not named Messi since October 2009. The Argentine has scored three or more times in 20 games since then, but no teammate has. 'Cesc' stepping up showed the team is not completely reliant on its number 10. "When Messi is missing, any team in the world would have a problem,” said assistant boss Jordi Roura on Saturday. “But the depth and great quality of the squad has been shown again.”
Another Barca squad player who featured on Saturday was defender Eric Abidal, back after 402 days out, as he recovered from a liver transplant. With head coach Tito Vilanova also returning from three months receiving cancer treatment in New York, it was an emotional night all-round.
Wednesday’s atmosphere should be just as heated, and a lot more tense, given what is on the line. Beckham is sure of another fiery welcome from Catalan fans with long memories. Those same supporters will be praying that Messi is fit to contribute, perhaps in the second half.
Many may also reflect that both superstars could easily have been teammates, had things gone differently back in 2003.
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