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Ronaldinho eyes rare treble
Simon Baskett | May 15, 2006 15:23 IST
Ronaldinho left Paris St Germain in 2003 after two frustrating and unsettled seasons with the French Ligue 1 side during which he failed to live up to his billing as one of the most exciting prospects in the game.
Three years on, he returns to the French capital for the Champions League final against Arsenal on Wednesday as the undisputed king of world football and the inspirational leader of a Barcelona side who are determined to cap a brilliant season by winning a second European Cup.
The effervescent Brazilian has rightly been given credit for transforming the Catalans from Primera Liga also-rans into one of the dominant clubs in Europe.
The Spanish champions have also fulfilled their part of the bargain by providing an environment in which the Brazilian's prodigious talent has been able to thrive. For both player and club it has been a marriage made in heaven.
"My future is Barcelona," Ronaldinho told Reuters recently. "I'm not thinking of anything that's not Barcelona. I have all that I could wish for and the club have made a great effort to make sure I'm happy."
It was very different, though, when Ronaldinho first arrived in Europe to sign for PSG from his home-town club Gremio in March 2001. A protracted legal argument over the size of the transfer fee delayed his debut for five months until the start of the following season.
He had a moderately successful first campaign in France, ending the season as PSG's top scorer with nine goals while the team finished fourth in the league.
It was enough for the forward to win back his place in the national team in time for the World Cup where he played a crucial role in Brazil's record fifth victory.
However, a much-publicised fall-out with PSG coach Luis Fernandez, coupled with a sharp drop in form, resulted in a disappointing second season in 2002-2003.
Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona all began to circle and it quickly became clear that Ronaldinho's days in the French capital were numbered.
With Barca's first-choice signing David Beckham snubbing a move to the Nou Camp and opting instead to move to the more fashionable Real, the door was opened for the Brazilian to follow in the footsteps of compatriots Romario, Ronaldo and Rivaldo and join the Primera Liga side.
Barca were, however, a club in crisis as they tried to cope with the aftermath of four years of mismanagement, political in-fighting, hapless coaching and desperate underachievement.
The burden of expectation on Ronaldinho's young shoulders was immense and 30,000 fans turned out to see the player billed as the club's saviour on the day of his presentation.
Ronaldinho made light of the responsibility and almost single-handedly restored the club's shattered morale.
The Brazilian's vision, passing skills and dazzling party tricks, coupled with his smiling, laid-back attitude to life and childlike enthusiasm were the perfect antidote to the gloom that had descended on the Nou Camp.
He inspired the team to a 17-match unbeaten run that lifted them to a second-place finish in his first season, their best placing in four years and an achievement that was recognised when he was named World Player of the Year in 2004, an award that he retained 12 months later.
After a slow start to his second campaign he was soon back to his best and, together with leading scorer Samuel Eto'o, he guided Barca to their first league title in six years, sparking wild celebrations from players and fans.
The Brazilian has been in even better form this season as he has directed the team to a successful defence of their league title and led them in their imperious progress to their first European Cup final in 12 years.
He produced a sublime performance to lead Barca to a 3-0 victory over arch-rivals Real in November, scoring two stunning solo goals in a display that brought the applauding Bernabeu crowd to their feet.
He scored a brilliant goal against Chelsea in the Champions League first knockout round, bursting past centre-back John Terry before arrowing a shot past keeper Petr Cech, and he set up the winning goal in their semi-final victory over AC Milan.
Unlike many of his high-profile counterparts, Ronaldinho has consistently produced the goods in the big games.
With the league title already under his belt, he returns to Paris on Wednesday with the aim of completing the second part of a rare treble which he hopes will conclude with victory in the World Cup.
UEFA Champions League 2005-06: The Complete Coverage