Barca boss shrugs off strain of lightning tour
One day Yokohama, the next Hong Kong. Less than 24 hours after beating J-League team Marinos in an exhibition game, European giants Barcelona landed in town for tomorrow's last leg of a gruelling Asian Tour which included a game in Beijing.
The schedule seems to have hit Barca boss Frank Rijkaard, who appeared at yesterday's press conference at the Grand Hyatt with red eyes. However, Rijkaard brushed aside suggestions that the tour was unnecessary and the team would have been better off training at home.
'It is not easy, all the travel. It is not an ideal situation. But this tour is all about mentally building up for next season. Apart from a few players who are injured, or missing because they played in the Copa America, we have brought a full team. It is a pleasure to be here. Travelling is part of our job,' Rijkaard said.
Last week Italian World Cup defender Gianluca Zambrotta and French international Lilian Thuram added their voices to Catalan critics who said the team's tour of Asia was mostly about promoting the club and keeping the sponsors happy.
They said it would hamper preparations for the new season which starts on August 25. Barcelona, who finished second last year in the Primera Liga, behind Real Madrid, have set their sights on the golden double - La Liga and the European Cup.
Happily for local fans, the two players accompanying Rijkaard for the meet-the-press session yesterday - Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto'o - looked none the worse from playing Yokohama just 16 hours before.
The Brazilian wore his trademark grin throughout, perhaps thinking about feasting on the defence confronting them tomorrow night at the Hong Kong Stadium - a joint Kitchee-Happy Valley side playing under the name of Mission Hills Invitation XI.
He certainly wasn't thinking about tucking into the local cuisine. 'Football comes first. We don't have a lot of time to taste the local cuisine. The team is concentrating on practice and preparing for the new season,' Ronaldinho replied to a question about if he would find time to taste the local delights.
Rijkaard turned and shook hands with Ronaldinho, pleased with his commitment. The easy camaraderie is something Rijkaard wants to flow through his squad brimming with talent, and huge egos.
A look at the forward lineup - Ronaldinho, Eto'o, Lionel Messi (one of the absent players), new signing Thierry Henry, and new teen sensation Giovanni dos Santos - shows how delicately Rijkaard will have to handle the players.
'I have a wonderful set of players and I'm excited looking ahead to the new season,' he said. 'The key thing right now is to build a good team spirit. I want to form a group, not have individuals ... however good they are.'
And even though Henry doesn't seem to be firing as yet, Rijkaard was unworried. The former Arsenal striker has not scored on the tour - playing the first halves in Beijing and Yokohama. 'He is still adjusting to Barcelona. I'm trying out a few things with Henry, but I'm confident that eventually he will fit in,' Rijkaard said.
'I think we will see a lot of goals being scored on Friday night,' said Kitchee boss Ken Ng Kin. 'I just hope it won't be against us.'
Ng must be an optimist.