Barcelona ready for reunion with their former guru Guardiola, the man who created an aura and pioneered an era with magician Messi at its heart but the Bayern coach fears the midfielder will damage them.
This article titled “Bayern manager Pep Guardiola knows he can’t stop unstoppable Leo Messi” was written by Sid Lowe in Barcelona, for The Guardian on Tuesday 5th May 2015 19.44 UTC
On one side, Lionel Messi. On the other, Josep Guardiola. Together, they collected 14 trophies in four years, the last of them the Copa del Rey at the Vicente Calderón in May 2012. Messi scored that night, just as he scored in the two European Cup finals they won. Now, they are seeking to return to the final for the first time since 2011, but only one of them will make it. Ballboy, youth-teamer, captain, coach and season ticket holder here, Guardiola returns to the Camp Nou as an opponent for the first time.
In the other dugout, his former dugout, will be his friend and old team-mate Luis Enrique, the man who followed him as coach of Barcelona B and is now in charge of the first team, chasing a debut-season treble like Guardiola achieved. “We’d agreed to meet in Berlin, but that can’t happen now,” Enrique grinned. “Before the game we’ll wish each other a lot of luck … or not so much luck.” Related: Bayern Munich’s Pep Guardiola goes home to Barcelona a changed man
Even more significantly, Guardiola returns seeking to stop the man he helped turn into the world’s best player and who he described here as “unstoppable”, shaking his head at the very suggestion that he could even conceive of a plan to prevent Messi damaging Bayern. If Guardiola helped make Messi the best, he always preferred to turn that equation round, present Messi as the man who helped him become the most successful coach in Barcelona’s history. During one game at Zaragoza, he heard a supporter behind the bench let out an awe-struck “fuck me!” Turning, Guardiola smiled: “Yep. If it hadn’t been for Messi, I’d be a third division manager.”
Instead, he is a Bundesliga one, seeking a third European Cup with a second team. He must get past Barcelona. The last time he trod this turf was against Espanyol, two years and a day ago; here, he was on the pitch again, in an empty arena. It will be different on Wednesday night, in front of 98,000, but it was emotional enough already. “When I joined a big club like Bayern, I always knew that this game would happen sooner or later,” he said. He knew too that he would be the focus; this is his game, the buildup about him.
At least it was until Barcelona announced that it would be Messi who spoke in the pre-match press conference: his first appearance before the media in two years. “Counter-programming,” the Spanish call it. But in fact, it enhanced the sense that this was a special occasion, with Guardiola at its heart.
For the first time in his life, the ballboy who ran on to the pitch to beg for Víctor Muñoz’s shirt after Barcelona reached the European Cup final in 1986 and who won the European Cup himself six years later, the first time the club had lifted the trophy, will want Barcelona to lose. He wants Bayern to take that trophy now.
Bayern’s bus headed down the Tibidabo mountain, crossed the Diagonal and reached the Camp Nou, Guardiola strolling into the stadium, a familiar route to an unfamiliar dressing room, before eventually heading down the tunnel, past the chapel on the right and on to the pitch, where he stood and watched his players. Before that, though, he had faced the media, arriving in the press room to be engulfed by cameras. He was clearly affected, and it has not really started yet.
There had been almost as many waiting for the Argentinian at Barcelona’s San Joan Despí training ground. Chances to hear him talk are few, yet inevitably many wanted to hear him talk about Guardiola. Two of Barcelona’s holy trinity. “I am sure that Pep will get [a huge reception] because of what he meant as a coach, because he won so much, because he’s one of their own,” Messi said. “He was here for a long time. We lived through a lot together and did important things, we won lots of titles. But once the game starts it will all be forgotten.”
A few hours later, Guardiola was saying something similar. These two are talented men, and men who lived their best years together, so far at least, but they are competitive men too.
“It’s a great feeling to come back here, there are a lot of memories,” Guardiola said, following the protocol to offer his first answer in German. “I spent 30 years of my life here but I am the coach of Bayern Munich and I have come here to play a game tomorrow. That’s my job. I have to do the best I can. I’m very happy to be here – because I have the chance to reach the final in Berlin.”
Asked if he would celebrate if Bayern scored, Guardiola, who insisted that he did not expect this to end 0-0, replied: “I don’t know what I’ll do. But I haven’t decided not to celebrate out of respect for Barcelona. My respect for Barcelona is not dependent upon the way I celebrate a goal. When my boys score, if they do, I will be very happy. I don’t know how I will react. We want to win. Barcelona is important for me in my life, but I want to win.”
The round of questions had started with the deep, gravelly voice of ESPN’s Martin Ainstein. The question was an emotional one, too, delivered as if a poem, and it struck a chord. “Here you are, back home, looking around, your eyes gleaming …” it began. “Nice …” Guardiola smiled. “So, how do you feel, what memories come back to you?” Ainstein continued.
For a moment, Guardiola paused. His voice sounded like it might crack. “I was here for four years and it is inevitable to remember things. I knew that if I coached a club like Bayern Munich this would happen and it will happen again. But the first time is always the first time,” he said. Again, there was a pause, a moment taken to regain his composure.
“This is not a normal game for me, but when I am doing my job, I do my job. I know what I have to do and I have not had my attention diverted at any moment,” he said. “I have always been treated well at home, but I’m not here for a homage or anything. I am here to reach the final. What I want to do is knock Barcelona out. I have come here to work, no more than that. That is what we have to do.”
If Bayern are to do that, they must find a way to prevent Messi defeating them. “It’s one thing to know how to stop him,” Xabi Alonso said, “But then you have to be able to actually do it.” Guardiola insisted that there was no way of doing so, but did discuss the value of possession, of preventing the ball reaching the No10. He knows how good Messi is: he saw for himself, not just when he coached him, but on the only night he has spent at the Camp Nou since leaving in May 2012.
That night came a little over a month ago when Barcelona played Manchester City in the last 16 and Guardiola sat in the stands alongside his father Valentí and Manel Estiarte, his consigliore at Barcelona and now at Bayern. Cameras caught him open-mouthed as Messi nutmegged James Milner. It was an eloquent gesture but there were no words. Towards the end of the game, Guardiola slipped away discreetly, not stopping to speak to his former players.
“We have not spoken since [he left],” Messi admitted here, before correcting himself. “Ah, yes, we came across each other at the Ballon d’Or, but all we did was say hello and apart from that we have not [spoken]. We had a good relationship when he was here, but [nothing] since then.”
That night, Guardiola hid his face behind a huge scarf, as Messi sliced City apart. He had gone as a fan, strolling towards the ground. But he had also gone to see two teams he might face and to prepare himself, in some small way, for the emotion that he knew would come if he had to come back here to compete. Few know Messi better, but even he was taken aback by this. He enjoyed it, but he was threatened by it too and he admitted to changing his tactics the more he thought about this game. With Messi in this form, no tactics are a guarantee.
Since Guardiola left things have not always been perfect for Messi. The manager has five titles since leaving, the player just two. For the last two years, Cristiano Ronaldo has taken the Ballon d’Or from him. Now, though, it is different. Messi was noticeably slimmer up close, even more so than has been apparent on the pitch of late, and his level of performance since the start of the year has been barely believable.
“Last year was a difficult year for me, because of everything I lived on and off the pitch. I had injuries, then when I came back from them I didn’t feel the way I wanted. It was complicated,” Messi admitted. “Luckily, when I started this year it was totally different and I feel very good.”
“So, will you put two or three men on him?” Guardiola was asked. It was not the first inquiry about how he might stop Messi and this time he interrupted. “You can’t stop him. If he is what he is, if he plays as he can, you can’t stop him. You can’t defend against talent of that magnitude. Teams have tried a thousand ways of stopping him, and it makes no difference,” he said. “We have to make sure he does not get the ball, close his way to goal. But there is no defensive system that can stop him, and no coach either.” Not even the coach who helped make him unstoppable in the first place.
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