While it may be a little premature to suggest Barcelona are currently a club in crisis, the Catalan giants are certainly facing what could prove a crossroads in their recent history.
Just days after losing their grip on the La Liga crown following three-years of unrivalled supremacy, Barca fans were hit with the news that the most successful Coach in their history would stand down at the end of the 2011-12 campaign.
The disappointment of Pep Guardiola’s impending departure may have been tempered somewhat by the news that his right-hand man Tito Vilanova would take over, to ensure at least some degree of continuity. However, there can be no hiding the fact that the club head into the summer having experienced a disjointed last season.
The media have already hit hard of course, most tenaciously and as is expected from those based in the Spanish capital, but even in the local Catalan Press, a sense of nervous anticipation is building as the club prepares for life without Guardiola.
Barcelona have found themselves in much worse predicaments in previous years, however, with a recent case most notably as they headed towards the winter break of 2003-04.
The unhappy reign of Joan Gaspart and the dour football of Louis van Gaal had been brought to a close during the preceding summer as the much-maligned President and his Coach resigned, leaving a brash, young lawyer called Joan Laporta to beat favourite Lluis Bassat in the subsequent club election.
Laporta promptly placed Frank Rijkaard at the helm of the team and set about rejuvenating the club. The marquee signing of Brazilian playmaker Ronaldinho from Paris Saint-Germain had whet the appetite of an expectant crowd and some of the deadwood had been shipped out – most notably the gifted but underachieving Argentine Juan Roman Riquelme.
By Christmas however, things had gone horribly wrong. Sitting in the bottom half of the table, Barca were looking over their shoulders nervously at the relegation zone with a League challenge gone and European qualification now looking highly unlikely.
The exciting new era had developed into a shambolic season of humiliation – witness the 5-1 thumping received at Malaga in early December, and soul-destruction – a home loss to eternal rivals Real Madrid for the first time in 20 years. Rijkaard was a man living on borrowed time, until a transfer deal was brokered that changed the course of the season that is.
When Edgar Davids arrived at El Prat airport to begin a five-month loan deal from Juventus, few could have foreseen the impact the Dutch international would have. But, in bringing his all-action, combative style into the lacklustre and often lazy side the Blaugrana had become, he transformed the team that had underperformed since August. Davids was a revelation in the heart of the midfield and almost single-handedly turned the season around thanks to his energy, attitude and refusal to pull out of any challenge for the ball. In short, the stocky midfielder had reintroduced a hunger to compete that his teammates caught on to.
With Davids in the team, Barca went on an amazing run that saw them win 10 out of 11 games to drag themselves up La Liga in search of a once-unlikely and astonishing title tilt. The side travelled to Madrid at the end of April and gained el Clasico revenge as goals from Patrick Kluivert and Xavi Hernandez moved them above Real Madrid in the table. Ultimately however, two defeats in the final three games left Rijkaard’s men just short of eventual champions Valencia, but in finishing second, Barca had completed an amazing, Davids-inspired, resurrection.
The then 31-year-old returned to Italy soon after the season finale as Roberto Mancini handed Davids a lucrative, three-year contract at Inter, but thanks to him, Barcelona kept faith with Rijkaard.
The following season, the Dutch Coach guided the club to their first League title in five years and then cemented his place in Blaugrana folklore in May 2006 as he guided the side to UEFA Champions League glory after an emotional night in Paris.
The first steps in creating the side Guardiola would then inherit and win a record number of trophies with had begun during this period. With Vilanova now preparing for his first few battles as the next Coach expected to win with this team and with the task of rejuvenating their unsuccessful title fight, it might be worth him remembering that for a side whose style of play is seen as inspired from the likes of Xavi and Lionel Messi, it was kick-started by a determined fighter in Davids.