For many millennials, Barcelona football club have been the benchmark of perfection in the world of the beautiful game. Tiki-taka, Lionel Messi and, of course, mercurial Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho, have been just some of the reasons behind the club’s rise in stature.
Més Que un Club, translated to ‘More than a club’, is the phrase synonymous with a true European giant, but at the start of the new millennium, things were not going to plan for a side unable to match Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team, which had swatted aside all before them.
Louis van Gaal tried and failed, but even the great Dutchman couldn’t build a sustainable team capable of matching their predecessors. The baton was passed to his international compatriot, Frank Rijkaard, and it was this changing of the guard that ushered in a new era in Catalunya.
Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Samuel Eto’o and the aforementioned Ronaldinho were perhaps the biggest instigators in the shift towards greatness, but one man, whose name often slips under the radar, is Ludovic Giuly, the Frenchman whose guile and work ethic was essential to Rjikaard’s machine.
In 2007, the French cog in the forward line had to surrender his position at the club to a certain Lionel Messi, but for three years he helped rebuild the tattered Barcelona model.
Signed from AS Monaco for around £6 million in the summer transfer window in 2004, Giuly arrived with a substantial reputation after helping the provincial club reach the Champions League final that year.
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Didier Deschamps’ exciting French outfit would eventually lose the final to José Mourinho’s Porto 3-0 – the efficient Portuguese giants were simply too strong. Sadly, in what would have been his last game for the club, Giuly suffered a groin injury and was substituted early in the first half.
However, his reputation was already cemented during a profitable time in his homeland. A crafty attacker, Giuly was capable of adapting to different systems and positions, torturing opposing full-backs in the process, and possessed excellent composure in front of goal.
It was what Barça were craving as they already had two offensive superstars in Eto’o and Ronaldinho stealing the limelight and scoring copious amounts of goals. All they needed was a consistent, hard-working star who could become the third spike in their trident. Giuly was that player. Never one to wow the Camp Nou onlookers with outrageous skill or a volume of goals that would make jaws drop, but his importance was there for all to see.
After scoring on his debut against Racing Santander, the Frenchman enjoyed a quick start to his career in Spain. What was ideal for Rijkaard was that he had a player who was already complete, at the top of his game, and could adapt to his system with ease.
He had to teach him little tactically; this was not a managerial experiment, it was simply a smart tactic with a player capable of making it pay off. “I don’t have a lot of things to teach Ludo. He is a very important player for us. He can be a provider, but one of his great qualities is that he can score goals. It would be a shame to condemn him to play only on the flank. The basis of his game is his speed and intelligence.” Rijkaard knew he had the perfect man for the job.
He would end his debut campaign as the club’s second top scorer behind the prolific Eto’o despite missing chunks of the season through several injury niggles. It was no coincidence that, with their six-year La Liga title drought ended by the summer of 2005, the cohesion and precision of their front three was flying the Blaugrana flag.
After they had tasted the sweet nectar of success, Rijkaard’s side flew into the 2005-06 season in the most buoyant of moods, with Giuly the right-sided propeller keeping them ever steady. Barcelona’s millennial era of dominance was just on the horizon.
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Eto’o and Ronaldinho were at their sublime best in one of Barcelona’s finest ever seasons, tearing teams to shreds with their majestic talent. It was the year that the Brazilian superstar received a standing ovation at the Bernabéu after two solo goals which virtually defied all possibilities.
The strikes were the mirror image of each other, slicing through the Los Blancos defence and highlighting the new strength of the Blaugrana. Giuly was more on the periphery in that game, performing admirably in his role and keeping the front three glued together. It was a game that would come to symbolise both his, and Ronaldinho’s, time for the club.
His output may have taken a dip – mustering only five goals and three assists in La Liga action – but his importance to the team was there. The supportive role in what was, at the time, the world’s finest front three, was a difficult one to play and his telepathic understanding with Juliano Belletti on the right side was crucial to Rijkaard’s style of play.
It would be a solid if unspectacular campaign for Giuly, but he was not one for the spotlight. He was not one who brought in the crowds – he simply fulfilled his role in a dignified manner, much like Pedro would later do for the Catalans.
However, one night in Milan would cement his status as a cult hero for the Blaugrana. After just scraping past Mourinho’s Chelsea and Benfica in the knockout stages of the Champions League, Barcelona found themselves in the semi-finals of Europe’s most prestigious competition – where they belonged.
AC Milan were their opponents and the Italian giants were seen as the favourites for the tournament, a team with a modern legend in virtually every position.
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The first leg was played at the San Siro – a harrowing task for any team, even one that contained the volume of stars Barça possessed. This, however, was not a night for the red and black striped men; instead, it was a night for a small-statured Frenchman in a fluorescent kit.
Ronaldinho picked up the ball and delivered an inch-perfect pass to Giuly, who, like he always did, had the necessary composure to power the ball past a helpless Dida. It would be the only goal over the two legs, and the decisive factor in what was Barça’s biggest night since the Wembley final in 1992 against Sampdoria.
Arsenal saw off Villarreal in the other semi-final to set up a showpiece against Rijkaard’s men in Paris. Giuly had delivered his pivotal moment but he was denied another shot at glory as he tapped the ball into an open net after Jens Lehmann flew out and clattered into Eto’o; the referee judged it to be a red card offence and therefore the goal was ruled out.
In the end, the Spanish giants saw off the spirited Gunners 2-1 and they were kings of Europe once more. Giuly had achieved his dream of winning a Champions League medal after brutally being cast off the pitch with an injury in his previous final with Monaco.
The 2006/07 season would be his final one in Spain as the growing stature of Messi signalled to him that his time was drawing to a close. The diminutive Frenchman even commented that the little Argentine magician was destroying them in training and that it was a formality that he was to be usurped.
Giuly would start a mere 15 La Liga games that season, finding the net just three times. A new Barcelona era of total dominance was approaching and the Frenchman did not have the skills – or age – to cope with the flux. Instead, he bid farewell to the club that gave him the honours he deserved. The baton was passed over to Messi and the process of evolution continued in Catalunya. He knew, like most, that Messi was going to elevate Barça to levels previously unseen and, with all his grace, Giuly gave him the platform to let it happen.
However, fans at Camp Nou will never forget their humble beginnings on the road to glory at the start of the millennium, and that Giuly was a vital piece in the jigsaw. He was perhaps not the final piece – the glory one – but he allowed others to reap the greatest rewards thanks to his skill, industry and selfless attitude.
By Danny Ryan @DannyRyan11