There will be just under 100,000 people in the Nou Camp stadium on Wednesday for Barcelona’s Champions League tie against Manchester City. And Pep Guardiola – a Barcelona legend as player, coach and Catalan separatist – will get a hero’s welcome, even though he will be managing the Premier League visitors.
There were some in the dressing room who were secretly glad to see Guardiola go when he quit as manager of Barcelona in 2012. But the fans will forever revere a man born within 50 miles of the city who left home as a 13-year-old to live at Barça’s La Masia training centre.
The son of a bricklayer, Guardiola played 11 seasons for Barcelona, four as captain, and later returned as coach to create the team regarded as the finest ever to have played the game. Supporters were worried when he was promoted from manager of the B team in 2008, because they thought Jose Mourinho should get the job. But Guardiola was confident from the start, telling fans from the centre circle, “Fasten your seatbelts – you’re going to have fun!” They did.
Guardiola’s luminaries, led by Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, won a heap of trophies, including the Champions League in 2009 and 2011, beating Manchester United in the final both times. Sir Alex Ferguson said they were “the best team I have faced”.
City are still a work in progress and they need to improve on their dismal record of four straight defeats by Barça in the Champions League. In the fourth of those games, in 2015, City’s outstanding player was goalkeeper Joe Hart. The first thing Guardiola did when he arrived in Manchester this summer was to ditch Hart, England’s first-choice goalkeeper, and bring in Claudio Bravo – from Barcelona. It showed that Guardiola is ruthless. “No matter how he might appear, he is very hard with players. And he can be very prickly,” said a Manchester City insider. “To say he is controlling is an understatement – you can see that from the way he has banned phones and wi-fi at the training ground. He wants players to talk to each other more, to build a stronger team spirit, and he will make sure it happens.
“He works the players relentlessly. At Barcelona he himself said he had been drained by four years in charge.” He was exhausted and took a year off, living in New York, but returned to football to lead Bayern Munich to three straight Bundesliga titles. And now he has a fresh challenge at City. In two short months he has revitalised Raheem Sterling, his goalkeeper switch looks a good move, and he enjoyed ten straight wins before the end of September.
City supporters believe they have a real chance on Wednesday, which was not always the case against Barcelona. And Barcelona have had their worst league start in a decade, dropping eight points in seven games. There is every chance Pep will enjoy his homecoming.
Barcelona v Manchester City is on BT Sport 2 tonight at 7 (k/o 7:45pm)