Ronaldinho Goes AWOL in Barca's Hour of Need

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*FOOTBALL

Barcelona face Schalke 04 tonight in Gelsenkirchen with their coach a possible two defeats from the sack and their most famous player nowhere in sight.

Ronaldinho has not travelled to Germany with his team-mates, but neither did he appear on the club medical department's list of injured players. He misses only his third Champions League game in four seasons... and just when his manager needs him most.

Coach Frank Rijkaard is expected to hang on at the Nou Camp until the end of the season because his President, Joan Laporta, is against making mid-season changes but Laporta's hand could be forced if Barcelona lose heavily tonight and at home to Getafe on Sunday.

Ronaldinho has not returned to the team since ruling himself out of an away trip to Almeria two weeks ago with an injury that Barcelona's medical staff subsequently claimed did not exist. He trained lightly yesterday but did not make the trip to Germany.

Two hundred fans protested at the club's training ground after the weekend's defeat to Real Betis when after leading 2-0 they ended up losing 3-2. Some have called for Rijkaard to step down and Barcelona B team coach and former player, Pep Guardiola, is being seen as a possible emergency replacement until the end of the season.

The club's sporting director, Txiki Begiristain, admitted: "I would like Frank to stay. We have to fight for what is left and then when the season is over we will make decisions. We are all playing for our futures."

A reaction is expected from Barcelona's players. There was a heated discussion in their final training session before flying to Germany ahead of tonight's game and captain Carles Puyol was among several players understood not to have held back from voicing his opinion of recent performances.

Barcelona have taken just four points from a possible 15 in their last five league games and have only kept one clean sheet in their last eight matches. At the weekend they slipped out of the top two at the expense of Villarreal.

Goalkeeper Victor Valdes has warned against throwing caution to the wind against the Germans in an effort to make up for the weekend defeat. …