Happy Birthday Pep. Now, about that contract…
Birthday congratulations have been pouring in all week for Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, who turned 40 on Tuesday, and it is worth taking a moment to reflect on his phenomenal record since he took over from Frank Rijkaard at the end of the 2007-08 season.
The softly-spoken former Barca and Spain midfielder has helped lift the Catalan club to unprecedented heights, winning eight of the 10 competitions they have contested, including a treble of Spanish league and Cup and European Champions League in his first season and an historic six trophies in 2009.
Records have tumbled during his short reign. They amassed the highest number of points and goals for the first half of a season in La Liga this term: 52 and 61 respectively, with a goal difference of plus 50. They have won all their away matches, surprisingly slipping up twice at home with defeat to promoted Hercules and a draw with Michael Laudrup’s Real Mallorca.
Perhaps most pleasing for the Barca faithful, maybe even more than the silverware, his team have won all five “Clasicos” against great rivals Real Madrid, a run that included a 6-2 success at Real’s Bernabeu stadium in May 2009 and last November’s crushing 5-0 romp at the Nou Camp.
Guardiola has lived and breathed Barca since joining their youth training programme at the age of 13 and his success as a coach has brought plaudits from all sides for his refusal to compromise on the club’s deeply-rooted style of entertaining, attacking football.
Watching players like Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique — all graduates of the youth school — as well as imports including David Villa and Daniel Alves week in week out is a genuine pleasure for all soccer fans.
Argentina forward Messi, winner of the past two World Player of the Year awards, has blossomed under Guardiola’s guidance and acknowledges his coach’s influence.
“Guardiola has given me a huge amount since the first chat I had with him,” Messi told Barca’s website on Friday.
“I remember he told me: With me you’ll score three or four goals a game.
“For the way he makes me play and the position he deploys me on the field Guardiola has given me everything.
“I owe a lot to Rijkaard and I am very grateful for the confidence he showed in me but with Guardiola I have developed a great deal.”
Not everything Guardiola touches has turned to gold of course.
There have been a number of failed transfer deals, most notably Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s hugely expensive move from Inter Milan that ended in personal acrimony between the pair and the Swede’s exit to AC Milan.
Ukraine defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy, who barely played before returning to Shakhtar Donetsk after one season, is another example.
Guardiola also lost out to former Barca assistant coach Jose Mourinho in the semi-finals of last season’s Champions League when the Portuguese was Inter coach, but the pain of that reverse was no doubt eased by the 5-0 drubbing of Mourinho’s expensive Real side in November.
Barca fans could be forgiven for nervousness over Guardiola’s refusal to commit himself to the club for more than one year and he is yet to extend his current contract beyond the end of this season.
However, his relationship with new president Sandro Rosell appears sound and media reports in Spain have suggested he will sign a new deal soon that gives him enhanced powers and a bump in salary.
Fans will be able to enjoy his Barca team for at least one more season it seems.
PHOTO: Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola (L) watches Lionel Messi (C) holding the Ballon d’Or trophy with Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez (R) before their Spanish King’s Cup soccer match in Barcelona January 12, 2011. REUTERS/Marti Fradera.