Monday 5 December 2016

Enrique guiding Barca to new heights

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Published 18/03/2016 | 02:30

Luis Enrique:
Luis Enrique: "The only team I don't want to draw is Barça. So in that sense I am very relaxed about it." Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Barcelona's players and their coach, Luis Enrique, were late out of the home dressing room on Wednesday night and it was not because they were celebrating beating Arsenal. They were watching the end of Bayern Munich's epic comeback against Juventus.

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Only after Dani Alves had seen his former Barça team-mate and goal celebration dance partner Thiago Alcantara put the German team back in front did he venture out to face reporters.

And only when he had seen his friend and former team-mate Pep Guardiola celebrate on the final whistle did Luis Enrique take questions on his team's 38th straight game without defeat and safe passage into the Champions League last eight.

"I am happy for Pep - he deserves it," the current Barça coach said. "The only team I don't want to draw is Barça. So in that sense I am very relaxed about it."

It was a response that betrayed a confidence now becoming very difficult to conceal. And it brought to mind one of his answers before the first leg against Arsenal when asked what he said to Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar before they take to the field and he replied: "Abracadabra".

There is magic in this team and it gives them the greatest chance any side has had since the European Cup became the Champions League to retain the trophy.

Barcelona reporters - Barça fans almost all - were also more interested in how things were going at the Allianz Arena than in what they would ask Arsene Wenger when he appeared to dress up another last-16 defeat in poetic praise for the opposition.

The Barcelona cheers for Guardiola's turnaround underlined the lasting loyalty to him, but also emphasised a growing sense of invincibility.

As they see it, even the architect of the first great Barça team of the 21st century will not be able to beat its stronger mutation.

And if this team does go all the way, it will fall not to Guardiola, but to Luis Enrique to go where no Barça manager has gone before.

Yesterday marked five years since he announced he would be walking away from the club after a successful spell as the 'B' team manager.

"I don't know what the future has in store but I am not concerned. I want new challenges," he said.

It has almost been forgotten that Luis Enrique achieved more with the 'B' team than Guardiola before him.

Pep got them promoted to the third tier but when Luis Enrique took over he had them up into the second tier inside two seasons and they finished with a club record 71 points in third place in the second division the season he walked.

Luis Enrique had an unsuccessful solitary season at Roma but bounced back in 2013 when he took over at Celta Vigo and they finished eighth before his Barcelona adventure began.

He made it clear from the start that any attempt to emulate Guardiola would be hopelessly unrealistic, but with two months left of his second season he stands on the brink of surpassing the achievements of his predecessor.

Guardiola never won a second treble, much less in consecutive seasons. No club has ever done that. And he never retained the Champions League. Ditto.

Those who know both men well say Luis Enrique's greater pragmatism is making it easier for him to succeed in back-to-back campaigns.

Guardiola's obsession with staying ahead of the chasing pack led him to make radical changes. Luis Enrique is an altogether calmer influence.

Guardiola erred in 2010 by gambling on Zlatan Ibrahimovic's big personality fitting into the Barcelona dressing room.

The current coach will change less that is not broken and he has also been more inclined to tailor the Barcelona style to suit the needs of the team.

"Pep would never have put quite so much stock in [Ivan] Rakitic," one insider told me.

The Croat is no Xavi but he covers the ground left vacant down the right when both Alves and Messi bomb forward.

Believe

Whoever they are drawn against today, Barcelona supporters will believe Luis Enrique can take them to the semi-finals.

They beat Bayern comfortably last season, have seen off Atletico Madrid twice in the league, and beat Real Madrid 4-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu.

There is nothing to fear from the Spanish sides and even less to fear further afield, with Manchester City sixth favourites and only Wolfsburg and Benfica more sought after as opponents.

One last potential banana skin on the road to immortality for this team is the upcoming international break. Suarez will take the 12-hour flight to Recife on Monday to make his international comeback after almost two years out following his bite on Giorgio Chiellini.

There will then be an emotional return to Montevideo when Uruguay play Peru. Neymar will be on Brazil duty - against Suarez in Recife - and Messi has to play on an awful pitch in Cordoba as Argentina face Bolivia.

If they come out of that unscathed they really could go all the way to Milan and into European football's history books. (© Independent News Service)

The last eight

The draw for the quarter-finals of the Champions League takes place in Nyon at 11.0 this morning, featuring Manchester City for the first time. Teams from the same country can face each other.

In the hat: Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Benfica, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, Wolfsburg

1st legs April 5-6. 2nd legs April 12-13

Semi-finals: April 26-27 and May 3-4

Final: Saturday, May 28 (San Siro)

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