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Ronaldinho goes Awol in Barça's hour of need

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. "It is important to remember that this is a two-legged game and we have to pick up a good first-leg result," he said.

Schalke are also third in their league, trailing Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich and Hamburg, and they could only manage a 0-0 draw at the weekend with midtable Karlsruhe.

They will be without midfielders Jermaine Jones, who is suspended, and the injured Ivan Rakitic for tonight's first leg. "We will not have a creative leader in the middle of the pitch," their manager, Mirko Slomka, said of the untimely losses.

Schalke have only scored six goals in the eight matches they have played in the Champions League so far this season but they have only let in five and saw off Porto in the last round.

Their leading scorer Kevin Kuranyi will carry the biggest threat for the home side in their 60,000-capacity Veltins Arena. But Barcelona can welcome back Argentine central defender Gabi Milito as they attempt to shut out Kuranyi and his Turkish strike partner, Halil Altintop.

Milito will partner Puyol in the centre of defence with Gianluca Zambrotta and Eric Abidal completing the back four. Yaya Touré will start despite carrying a back injury but Rafael Marquez has returned from injury and could replace the midfielder in the second half. In attack, Barcelona are missing the tournament's current leading scorer, Leo Messi, who injured a thigh muscle against Celtic in the last round. And with Ronaldinho left back in Barcelona Thierry Henry should continue up-front alongside Samuel Eto'o and 17-year-old Bojan Krkic.

Schalke will have Brazilian left-back Rafinha in their starting XI. The full-back is believed to be one of three players Liverpool manager, Rafa Benitez, has agreed to sign at the end of the season.

Schalke 04 (probable, 4-4-2): Neuer; Rafinha, Bordon, Krstajic, Westermann; Asamoah, Grossmuller, Kobiashvili, Pander; Altintop, Kuranyi.

Barcelona (probable, 4-3-3): Valdes; Abidal, Puyol, Milito, Zambrotta; Iniesta, Touré, Xavi; Henry, Bojan, Eto'o.

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