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Failure and Pep Guardiola are words that haven’t appeared together in the same sentence for some time, but the Barcelona coach has a big task on his hands if he is to prevent them being applied to his side’s end of the season.
He was right to argue after Wednesday’s Champions League exit to Inter Milan that it was hardly a case of his team being a victim of their own success.
They top La Liga by one point from Real Madrid with four games left to play, having already collected 87 points – a figure that won them the title last year after all 38 games, and which was last bettered in 1997 by Real Madrid when there were 22 teams in the division.
A Champions League semi-final isn’t to be sniffed at either, but there is such a fine line between success and failure.
It’s considered irresponsible for a coach to call for fans to intimidate visiting teams and referees, just as it courts controversy to accuse rivals of diving a lot.
The restrictions on coaches are not so tightly applied to players so it was Gerard Pique and Thiago Motta who waded in to do the dirty work, in the buildup to Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final return between Barcelona and Inter Milan.
Inter Milan’s masterclass performance against Barcelona will have impressed many, including Pep Guardiola, and produced just the first-leg outcome the tie needed to set up a gripping return leg at the Nou Camp next Wednesday.
Graceful after his first two-goal defeat since he took over at Barcelona, Guardiola refused to blame the fact his team had endured a 14-hour coach ride to Milan after volcanic ash from Iceland grounded flights across Europe.
But, having said he had made good use of the trip by watching Inter videos, Guardiola might wonder whether some of his players had taken a nap when they should have been paying attention.
It was always going to be difficult for Pep Guardiola to repeat last year’s astonishing achievements when Barcelona swept up six trophies.
Since adding the Club World Cup to their haul in December, they have started to look vulnerable, and, more recently, jaded.
Thierry Henry has cut a forlorn figure sitting on the bench during Barcelona’s last three La Liga matches, raising questions over the French striker’s future in Spain.
The 32-year-old struggled in his first year at the Nou Camp but was a key figure in their treble-winning campaign last season scoring 26 goals in all competitions.
Has Lady Luck deserted holders Barcelona as their players suggested or did Rubin Kazan coach Kurban Berdyev and his players pull off the tactical masterstroke that has eluded so many others since Pep Guardiola took over at the Nou Camp at the start of last season?******It was probably a bit of both that led to Barca’s 2-1 defeat on Tuesday, their first Champions League reverse in 10 matches and a first home defeat in any competition since they lost to Osasuna last May when they had already secured the La Liga title.******The match was reminiscent of last season’s semi-final first leg against Chelsea, when the visitors defended stoutly in numbers and several times came close to grabbing a goal on the break.******Rubin went one better than the London club, exploiting the indifferent form and lack of pace of Barca’s Mexican central defender Rafael Marquez for Gokdeniz Karadeniz’s excellent winner on the counter attack.******The wily Berdyev, an intensely private man, watched impassively from the sidelines fingering his prayer beads, and Barca’s rivals, both in Spain and beyond, will doubtless try to learn from his success.******Whatever the reasons for Barca’s shock defeat, the hacks at the Madrid-based sports sheets were rubbing their hands on Wednesday, gleefully pointing to last weekend’s goalless draw at Valencia in La Liga and proclaiming the demise of Guardiola’s record-breaking side.******“Russian revolution at the Nou Camp!” trumpeted Marca.******“The ‘Pep Team’ lost their identity and were unable to produce the rhythm the match required. This Barca is not the champion,” was the headline in As.******The Barcelona-based papers preferred to focus on the fact that the European champions remain top of Group F after three out of six matches and have their fate in their own hands ahead of the trips to Kazan and Dynamo Kiev and Inter Milan’s visit to the Nou Camp.******“Crisis? What crisis?” asked Gabriel Sans in El Mundo Deportivo. “Barca have lost some fluidity and tactical freshness but their fate still depends on their own results.******”The glass is half full and they’ll drain it in Russia and drink to the health of whoever wants it.”******“Damn woodwork!” wrote Sport, referring to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s acrobatic volley that shook the crossbar in the second half and Yaya Toure’s header at the death that crashed against a post.******Guardiola seemed to take the loss in his stride, although he had a minor altercation with a Russian journalist at the post-match news conference when he was bizarrely asked if he even knew Berdyev’s name.******“This is why football is special,” he said of the match. “In any other sport, with our statistics, we would have won.”******PHOTO: Barcelona’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic reacts as Rubin Kazan’s Vital Kaleshin (R) gestures during their Champions League soccer match at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, October 20, 2009. REUTERS/Albert Gea
Manchester United palpably failed to become the first team to retain the European Cup in the Champions League era but few would bet against Barcelona managing the feat next season.
And where would be the perfect place for Pep Guardiola’s stylish side to achieve it? The Nou Camp? No, next year’s final is in Madrid and the Barca fans I spoke to in Rome after the game could not think of a better venue to show their rivals and world football that they are undisputed kings.
When you consider the importance Barcelona attaches to its Catalan identity, and the number of great local players the club has produced, it seems strange that Catalan coaches, or at least first team coaches, have had so little influence.
There have been a few, from Roma Forns back in 1927 through Josep Samitier, the great former player, and more recently the likes of Llorenc Serra Ferrer (actually Mallorquin) and Charly Rexach.
from Left field:
There were nervous moments for Barcelona in the first half of the King's Cup final but a three-goal nine-minute burst from Lionel Messi, Bojan Krkic and Xavi helped them to a 4-1 win over Athletic Bilbao and the first leg of a possible treble.
The league title could be their this weekend, on Saturday if Real Madrid fail to win at Villarreal or failing that on Sunday if they can manage a point at Real Mallorca.
Thierry Henry did not enjoy the happiest of starts to his new life in Barcelona but it’s clicked for the Frenchman this term.
He plays more as a winger than a striker under Pep Guardiola yet he’s still managed 15 league goals this season and the Premier League certainly seems a poorer place without him.