Guardiola’s final goodbye
MAY 25 — Just when we thought the European club season had been brought to a thrilling climax by Didier Drogba’s penalty in Munich last weekend, along come FC Barcelona to have the final word and remind everyone they still exist by taking part in tonight’s Spanish cup final against Athletic Bilbao (kick-off 4am Saturday morning, Malaysian time).
It’s a game that carries even more significance than usual for the Catalan club, for two reasons.
Firstly, it’s a chance to salvage the end of a season that is threatening, by their imperiously high standards, to turn into a big disappointment; after being deposed as European and Spanish champions in the last few weeks, they are hungry for silverware.
Even more importantly, Barca are desperate to lift the cup as a leaving gift for departing coach Pep Guardiola, who is taking charge of his last game before embarking upon a sabbatical break from the game.
Guardiola is an enormously popular figure here in north-eastern Spain, regarded with saint-like reverence by Barcelona fans.
And that’s not difficult to understand: after serving the club magnificently as a player during the nineties, winning sixteen major honours including six league titles and one European Cup, he returned as coach to lead the team to an unprecedented level of success.
It’s worth recapping exactly how successful Guardiola has been since taking over from Frank Riijkaard four years ago. The list of trophies he has won is staggering:
2009: Champions’ League, Spanish League, Spanish Cup, Spanish Super Cup, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup.
2010: Spanish League, Spanish Super Cup
2011: Champions’ League, Spanish League, Spanish Super Cup, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup.
That’s 13 trophies in four years. So it’s not surprising to find that Guardiola’s departure, despite recent disappointments, is being unanimously lamented by the club’s followers.
Sceptics — not that you’ll find any of those in Barcelona — may question just how significant Guardiola’s role has been. Surely a team containing the magic of Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol & co would have won all those trophies whoever happened to be their manager, it could be argued.
I don’t agree with that viewpoint. Having wonderful players at your disposal is one thing; moulding and shaping them to play effective football is quite another. Guardiola was also instrumental in developing the unique ‘tiki-taka’ style of play that has captivated global audiences over the last four years, and his anointed successor Tito Vilanova (currently Guardiola’s assistant) faces a very tough task in maintaining the standards that have been set.
But that’s for the future. For now, the only thought on Barca’s collective minds is giving Guardiola the chance to lift a trophy at the end of his final game in charge.
They’ll have to do so without their captain, as Puyol is sidelined by a knee injury that will almost certainly rule him out of Spain’s plans for this summer’s European Championships. Dani Alves is also absent with a broken collarbone, so Guardiola will be forced to select a makeshift defence, and that will give every incentive to their dangerous opponents, Athletic Bilbao.
The Basque club have been excellent at times this season, playing high-tempo and attack-minded football, although they did appear to run out of steam in the final weeks of the campaign, which saw them slip to tenth place in the Primera Division standings and lose 3-0 in the Europa League Final against Atletico Madrid.
But they’ve now had some time to recuperate and regain their energy for one final assault, and Marcelo Bielsa’s talented young squad will be desperate to make up for the disappointment of their Europa League loss by beating Barca.
The final will be played in the Vicente Calderon Stadium, Atletico Madrid’s home ground, and there has been controversy in the build-up with a prominent Madrid politician suggesting that the game should be postponed and played behind closed doors if the Basque and Catalan fans from Bilbao and Barcelona — famous for their desire to achieve political independence for their regions — fail to respect the Spanish national anthem when it is played before kick-off.
There is also a lot of concern over the state of the turf, which had to be re-laid this week after a long-scheduled Coldplay concert took place on Sunday night. Five days to prepare a completely new pitch is woefully inadequate, and there’s every chance that the quality of the playing surface will be notably poor.
It would very much work in Bilbao’s favour if an uneven pitch hinders Barca’s short passing game and Guardiola — with his new-look back four — may need to call upon all his cunning to devise an alternative game plan if he is to lift trophy number 14.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.