Guardi­ola heads home seek­ing break from away day blues

The Sun (Malaysia) - - SPORTS -

FOR ONE of the most dec­o­rated coaches of all-time, boast­ing a 75% ca­reer win per­cent­age and 21 tro­phies, Pep Guardi­ola’s record of two wins from his last 11 away Cham­pi­ons League matches is an un­char­ac­ter­is­tic stain.

Manch­ester City’s long court of the Cata­lan was not just to dom­i­nate at home, but se­cure City’s place amongst the Euro­pean elite by win­ning the Cham­pi­ons League.

De­spite reach­ing the last four for the first time in their his­tory last sea­son, Guardi­ola in­sists they are far from the fin­ished ar­ti­cle.

“If you ask me if we are ready to com­pete in Europe, then we are not ready,” he said last month de­spite a stun­ning 10-game win­ning run to start his ten­ure.

That streak, though, was snapped on their first trip in the Cham­pi­ons League proper in a pul­sat­ing 3-3 draw at Celtic three weeks ago.

Guardi­ola sum­marised the mad­cap ‘Bat­tle of Bri­tain’ in a fa­mously rau­cous Glas­gow at­mos­phere as a “good test” of where City are away from home in Europe.

Yet, as he re­turns to the club that made him as a player and a coach in Barcelona to­day, Guardi­ola and City will get a far bet­ter look into how far they have to go to be Cham­pi­ons League con­tenders.

“The last decade, the last 15 years they dom­i­nate foot­ball the way they play,” said Guardi­ola af­ter Satur­day’s 1-1 draw with Ever­ton. “Barcelona is spe­cial (in) the way they play be­cause it is a ma­chine.”

Much of that dom­i­nance and style of play is thanks to Guardi­ola.

His 2008-2012 vin­tage side that won 14 tro­phies and even more hearts for its mix of in­tense press­ing and pen­e­trat­ing pass­ing is widely re­garded as the best Barca team of all-time.

How­ever, the po­lit­i­cal machi­na­tions and me­dia de­mands, not to men­tion two years of bait­ing by then Real Madrid boss Jose Mour­inho took its toll.

“Four years as coach of Barcelona is an eter­nity,” he said when an­nounc­ing his res­ig­na­tion in April 2012. “I am empty and I need to re­plen­ish my­self.”

He did so firstly via a sab­bat­i­cal in New York and then three largely suc­cess­ful years at Bay­ern Mu­nich that lacked a crown­ing glory – win­ning the Cham­pi­ons League.

That he fell that step short with Bay­ern is due to three vis­its to Spain in the semi­fi­nals for the past three sea­sons. Each time he left de­feated with­out even man­ag­ing to score a goal.

Un­der his old team­mate Luis En­rique, Barcelona have moved on too. A Lionel Messi-in­spired 3-0 win over Guardi­ola’s Bay­ern in 2015 al­lowed En­rique to equal his friend’s re­mark­able achieve­ment of de­liv­er­ing the tre­ble in his first sea­son in charge.

The style has been tweaked too. Whereas the mid­field axis of Xavi and An­dres Ini­esta used to pro­vide Messi as the fo­cal point of the Barca at­tack, the Span­ish cham­pi­ons can now call upon three of the dead­li­est strik­ers in the world.

Luis Suarez and Ney­mar com­ple­ment Messi’s skill set and give Barca a counter-at­tack­ing di­men­sion not so preva­lent in the Guardi­ola era.

“They are three amaz­ing play­ers in front,” added Guardi­ola. “They are amaz­ing on the counter-at­tack and they have a good build-up, so they are a good team.”

Guardi­ola will be warmly wel­comed by the vast ma­jor­ity in the stands and his old charges on the pitch, if not in the pres­i­den­tial box where old po­lit­i­cal di­vides re­main.

That has much to do with the rea­son why Guardi­ola has only been back to the Camp Nou one other time than Bay­ern’s visit in the past four years.

Sit­ting next to his father as a fan rather than an in­vited guest, Guardi­ola howled in as­ton­ish­ment at a vir­tu­oso Messi dis­play as Barca beat City 1-0 in March 2015.

Only a se­ries of out­stand­ing saves from Joe Hart pre­vented more se­vere pun­ish­ment for the City that night.

Hav­ing un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously ex­pe­d­i­tated Eng­land’s No. 1 for an­other former Barca man in Clau­dio Bravo, the first cracks in the Guardi­ola reign may be­gin to form if Barca prove a gulf still ex­ists be­tween the two to­day. – AFP

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