Relief in Barcelona as Guardiola extends contract
During Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Atletico Madrid at the Nou Camp last Saturday, which set a Spanish record of 16 straight La Liga victories, there was one thrilling passage of play which perfectly illustrated the work ethic Pep Guardiola has instilled among his squad of wonderfully gifted players.
The ball was played into space for Atletico forward Sergio Aguero. Lionel Messi suddenly appeared, sprinting back into defence. The World Player of the Year ran shoulder to shoulder with his Argentina team mate, stole the ball, beat Felipe Luis with an audacious piece of skill and started yet another assault on the visitors’ goal.
Atletico coach Quique Sanchez Flores said after the match it was that commitment to the team that showed why Messi is the world’s best player and why Barca have been destroying decades-old records over the past two and a half seasons.
The 23-year-old Messi was an Alfredo Di Stefano for the 21st century, added Sanchez Flores, like Di Stefano a former Real Madrid player.
Messi’s brilliant rearguard action also partly explains why under Guardiola, who extended his contract with the La Liga champions until the end of next season on Tuesday, Barca have won eight of the 10 trophies they have contested since he succeeded Frank Rijkaard at the end of the 2007-08 season.
The softly-spoken and respectful former Barca and Spain midfielder has lived and breathed the Catalan club since he joined their youth school in 1984 at the age of 13.
His success as a coach has brought praise from all sides for his refusal to compromise on Barca’s deeply-rooted style of entertaining, attacking football.
After learning his craft as a player under Johan Cruyff, he has built on the Dutch great’s legacy to mould a spectacularly successful team that is admired the world over.
There is no room for puffed-up, show-boating individuals. The players work as a unit, constantly creating space for each other and harrying the opposition into giving up the ball.
The credit for the victories is shared, as is the blame for the rare failures on the pitch.
Guardiola has repeatedly said he would be nothing without his players. That may be true to a certain extent, but he must take some credit for moulding such talent as Messi, David Villa, Pedro, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets into a lethal attacking unit, with 70 goals in 22league matches this season.
His first-choice defence, with Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique in the centre, Daniel Alves and Eric Abidal on the flanks and Victor Valdes in goal have conceded only 11.
Messi, especially, has blossomed under Guardiola’s guidance and acknowledges his coach’s influence.
“For the way he makes me play and the position he deploys me on the field Guardiola has given me everything,” he said last month.
“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 has gone Guardiola’s way, with several unsuccessful transfer deals on his watch.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s move from Inter Milan ended in personal acrimony between the pair and the Swede’s exit to AC Milan, losing Barca around 35 million euros ($48 million). Ukraine defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy, who barely played before returning to Shakhtar Donetsk after one season, is another example.
But those have been mere blips in a golden era for the club and they have a chance to add three more trophies this season.
They lead Real Madrid by seven points at the top of La Liga, play their great rivals in the King’s Cup final in April and take on English Premier League side Arsenal in the last 16 of the Champions League.
Guardiola, who has said he prefers to renew his contract on an annual basis, is the only coach to win the treble of Spanish league and cup and Champions League and did so in his first season in charge.
Few would bet against him repeating that feat, if not this season then before his new contract runs out at the end of June 2012.
Photo: Lionel Messi of Argentina is presented with the FIFA Ballon d’Or 2010 trophy by Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola (R) in Zurich, January 10, 2011. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann.