Tuesday 28 February 2017

Enrique gives Guardiola fans reason to cheer Barcelona

A new Nou Camp leader has emerged from among the disciples of former boss

Ian Hawkey

Luis Enrique has brought Barcelona back to the top of La Liga
Luis Enrique has brought Barcelona back to the top of La Liga

On the night of his farewell from the Nou Camp, in May 2012, Pep Guardiola took his family to the stadium.

His fabled Barca team put on a show, a 4-0 win against Espanyol, and afterwards he heard a rousing personal ovation from close to 90,00 people, and wiped his eyes a couple of times as he made a dignified and self-effacing speech.

When the crowds had gone, the floodlights dimmed, Guardiola stood on the pitch for a last look around, and he noticed his son Marius, in the technical area, play-acting, aping his father's work, giving imaginary orders, pointing urgently at a match going on in his mind's eye.

Marius was 11 at the time. He may take up coaching for real one day, if he finds he has the genes. If so, he would be the umpteenth heir in a long line of Pep Mark IIs. Barca's executives have been in search of one as head coach for three years, and tried a new version in each of the summers since Guardiola began work at Bayern Munich, whom he brings to Catalonia on Wednesday for a Champions League semi-final first leg.

Barcelona's public and coaching staff have been looking for a fresh Guardiola-type far longer, for close to 20 years, since Pep the player ran the Barca midfield with his rare capacity for prizing possession, passing precisely, seeing two or three moves ahead.

To be identified as a would-be Guardiola bestows advantages on a young footballer. It means standing out in class at La Masia, the club's academy, as an A+ scholar in the parts of the game the curriculum prioritises: pass-and-move; sure first touch, with head raised; 180-degree vision.

Cesc Fabregas had it as a schoolboy. How he beamed the day Guardiola, then the club's captain, gave him one of his No 4 jerseys and predicted one day Fabregas would wear it in the first team.

Xavi Hernandez, the La Masia cum laude, had it, too. How he smiled when he made his Barca debut in Guardiola's central midfield role.

And how thrilled was Thiago Alcantara when, in the summer of 2013, he heard that Guardiola the manager wanted him more than any other new signing for his new adventure in Munich.

Thiago (24) follows the strong line that connects Fabregas (27) to Andres Iniesta (30) to Xavi, now 35, and, at one remove, to Guardiola (44): intelligent midfielders who learnt at La Masia, understood its dogmas, boarded the tiki-taka fast-track.

The Barcelona teams - youth and senior - Guardiola used to coach regarded these players as must-haves. Yet, post-Guardiola, Fabregas and Thiago have left for Chelsea and Bayern respectively. Their departures measure how Barcelona are no longer the team best loved for Lionel Messi and his Guardiolista sidekicks, Xavi and Iniesta.

These days, they wow the world not through the geometric elegance of their midfield passers but their front-line firepower of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, who have scored 11 times between them in the last two matches.

When they all pitched in during the 6-0 hammering of Getafe last week, the Nou Camp fans chanted the name of the current head coach, not as loudly as they cheered Guardiola in May 2012, but with sustained volume.

Luis Enrique, the third post-Guardiola coach, is enjoying his most successful period of this, his first season in charge. From the dressing-room, he is being compared favourably with Guardiola.

"At the beginning of the season the coach was criticised," said Javier Mascherano, whose Barcelona career started under Guardiola. "But whatever we achieve in the end, we are coming into this stage of the season in very good shape mentally and physically."

Mascherano did not have to spell out the implication: Barca, with a 14-0 aggregate scoreline from their past two matches, two points clear of Real Madrid domestically, have no serious injuries to senior players ahead of Wednesday.

Guardiola's Bayern, Bundesliga champions, lost the German Cup final last week, and have half a dozen damaging injuries.


Among those available is Thiago, who has missed most of his Bayern career through injury but has lately looked as good as a younger Xavi or a youthful Iniesta or a peak-prodigy-era Fabregas.

Thiago's return to the Nou Camp may be as emotional, as testing, as his manager's. A dazzling night would make him emblematic of what Barca have lost post-Guardiola.

An evening in the shadows of Neymar, Suarez or Ivan Rakitic, figures of post-Guardiola Barca, would mean grumbles in Munich, a questioning of Guardiola's priorities.

"I haven't enjoyed being seen here as Guardiola's special favourite," Thiago told German magazine Sport-Bild. It will be a while before he can shed that label. (© Daily Telegraph, London)


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