International Soccer
Top-form Ronaldinho Barca's answer?

Brian Westfall, Soccer Editor

Stoppage Time Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho returned from more than a month off Thursday to an unexpected reaction from fans at Barcelona's Nou Camp that excited coach Frank Rijkaard.

As soon Ronaldinho got off the bench to start warming up, loud cheers from the fans roared through the nearly 100,000 seat stadium.

Ronaldinho later ran onto the pitch as Barca teammate Lio Messi was ready to shoot a penalty. He went to the edge of the box, took a step or two inside - initially looking like he was going to take the PK - and said a few words of encouragement.

Messi, the young Argentine phenom, missed the kick. It was the first Barcelona missed penalty kick since last year, when Ronaldinho misfired.

"The truth is that Ronaldinho's entrance just before the penalty did affect me," Messi said. "I was going to leave it and let him take it, but in the end I shot."

It didn't really matter as Barcelona, which led 1-0 at the time, held on to win in the second leg and advance to the semifinals of the league cup.

Ronaldinho has seven goals and three assists in 15 games for Barcelona this season.
And really, Messi's miss - and even Barca's victory - took a back seat to what happened in the 74th minute.

Ronaldinho, after missing 39 days, was back.

And so was hope the two-time FIFA Player of the Year could somehow help Barca overcome a nine-point deficit to Real Madrid over the final 17 matches in the Spanish La Liga.

"These are the sort of things that a player needs and that will help him to continue working hard for the team," Rijkaard said.

Sure, Messi is crucial to Barcelona's success. The "next Diego Maradona" may be the most exciting striker in the world.

But what about Ronaldinho?

Can he really just be forgotten on a roster that includes Messi, Samuel Eto'o, Thierry Henry and Carles Puyol - among others? No.

"We all know about Messi," Barcelona's Gianluca Zambrotta said. "Ronaldinho did some good things when he came on."

Sure, Ronaldinho fell out of favor in Barcelona earlier this season. He wasn't playing up to his standards, missed matches because of injury - most recently tendonitis in his left knee - and rumors had him headed to AC Milan, Chelsea or Real Madrid.

If there's any team in the world with talent to spare, it's Barcelona. But you don't just turn your back on one of the world's greatest players - especially not one that's still in his prime.

Let's not forget Ronaldinho, just 27, has seven goals and three assists in 15 games for Barcelona this season. Remember the last two La Liga seasons? He had 38 goals and 21 assists in 61 matches.

Lets also not forget that two years ago it was Ronaldinho who put the team on his back and carried them to an impressive double - the La Liga and Champions League crowns.

So even if the climb back to the top of the La Liga has a Mount Everest-type feel to it, Ronaldinho is capable of leading Barcelona there.

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