Thursday, 26 May 2011

Guardiola's humble nature defies a greatness that will stand the test of time

Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side have many great qualities. One of the more subtle ones, often exuded by their coach, is their humility.

That humility was in evidence only a couple of weeks ago when having sealed the Spanish title for the third consecutive season, Guardiola batted away comparisons with “the Dream Team” – Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona side which Guardiola played in and won four successive league titles between 1991-94.

"This team can never compete with the Dream Team,” he said.

Guardiola knows better than anyone how the two sides compare. On paper their achievements are broadly similar, the current side have been far more dominant in winning their three titles than Cruyff’s were in their four and both can boast one European Cup triumph. However, the argument in favour of the Dream Team is not even in what they won but in their legacy. As Guardiola added, “they started this.”

For all the principles that have defined Barcelona over the past three seasons are all ones Guardiola, the ultimate Cruyff disciple, learned at the knee of the Dutch master. The 4-3-3, the passing style, the inter-changeable positions, the mixture of academy reared and imported talent, they were all implemented and used first by Cruyff in the early nineties.

Guardiola, much like Xavi Hernández in the current side, was a focal point of that team, a sprinkling of Catalan spirit to accompany the more stellar names of Romario, Stoichkov and Laudrup.

It is this continuity and faithfulness to a certain style which has seen Barcelona become the most attractive side in world football.

One story that defines that continuity from Guardiola’s time as a player to a manager more than most is of one of Barça’s current stars first ever training session with the first team. Guardiola, knowing he was coming towards the end of his playing time in the Catalan capital, pulled a 20-year-old Xavi aside and said: "You're going to retire me. This lad is going to retire us all."
That lad was Andrés Iniesta.

Yet, for all that this side owes a lot to Cruyff’s vision, the Barcelona of 2011 certainly no longer live in the shadow of the Dream Team’s success.

In many ways Guardiola’s statement that there is no competition between the two sides is true. But that is only because the current side have already surpassed its predecessor.

In Guardiola’s first season they became the first Spanish side ever to complete the treble. In his second they bagged four more trophies and broke the Spanish league record with 99 points.

This term they have faced a new challenge. Having won everything at club level, the club’s academy, La Masia, was now principally responsible for winning Spain’s first World Cup. Eight of the side that will start this evening were in that squad.

With the Spanish internationalists having played for three consecutive summers in the European Championships, Confederations Cup and last summer in South Africa, fatigue has meant some of the shine has come off of Barça’s performances since the turn of the year.

A fatigue that was only exacerbated by the emotional toil of four clashes with Real Madrid in what Guardiola termed “19 incredibly tough days” across the end of April and early May.

Those meetings with Madrid however demonstrated a side of Barcelona that is often overlooked. Famed for their beauty and elegance, Guardiola’s men showed a willingness to battle and play dirty when they had to.

It is not their most laudable characteristic, but one that every champion must have. With nine trophies in the three seasons that is something this side most certainly is.

Should they add another and replicate the Dream Team’s most golden moment by winning European football’s biggest prize at Wembley this evening, even Guardiola will find it hard to deny that his side haven’t matched their achievements, they will have surpassed them.

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