Josep Guardiola: Leading Barcelona's Resurgence
Earlier this week, when Club América president Michel Bauer replaced Argentinean manager Ramón Díaz with former Mexico U-20, U-17 and U-15 manager Jesús Ramírez, he was questioned about placing a man with no experience managing a club into what is arguably Mexico's hottest seat.
Bauer calmly explained that the greatest example he could think of to show that it would not be a factor was simply that in his opinion, the best club in the world is managed by a man who walked into the job with no top tier experience of his own.
That club is FC Barcelona. That man is Josep Guardiola.
On June 30, 2008, Guardiola inherited a team that had underperformed the last two seasons, garnering zero trophies and surrendering the protagonist role to their arch-rivals, Real Madrid.
Despite counting with a team that boasted world-class stars such as Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry, Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto'o, Gianluca Zambrotta, Rafael Márquez and Victor Valdés among others. Former manager Frank Rijkaard's club collapsed in the second half of his last two seasons at the helm.
Adding to the swirl of discontent, team president Joan Laporta was nearly ousted from office due to a notion of no-confidence from official team supporters that fell barely below the required percentage to dismiss him from his duties.
In days prior to Guardiola assuming his duties at manager, the aforementioned Ronaldinho expressed his desire to depart from Camp Nou, and there were rumors that Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry were next.
Ronaldinho was finally dismissed, along with a host of players that included Zambrotta, Deco, and Rijkaard favorite Giovani dos Santos. Instead of replacing them players with equally big names, the team went about signing what they perceived as harder working players with smaller egos.
At the start of the season, some odds makers and pundits alike dared to proclaim a three-peat for Real Madrid, citing the loss of Ronaldinho, the continuity of Madrid's best players and Guardiola's presence on the Barcelona bench as mitigating factors.
Now, some six months later, Barcelona sits atop La Liga with a commanding 10-point lead over second place Real Madrid, who have suffered numerous injuries to key players and gone through both a managerial change and the resignation of their president.
Alas, it would be foolish to conclude that Real Madrid's shortcomings have paved the way for Barcelona's resurgence.
The Catalonians are primed to end their trophy drought, as they find themselves in the Copa del Rey semifinals while cruising through the third qualifying round and the group stage without incident en route to the UEFA Champions' League Round of 16, where they will face French club Lyon.
With 15 league games remaining, and no new trophies on the shelf yet, there is still enough time for a dramatic swing in this story.
However, with Guardiola's team only seven points away from matching last season's total, a new, effective emphasis on managing a complex dressing room, and a playing style reminiscent of the "Dream Team" in which Guardiola himself shined, every passing day and match brings the blaugrana faithful closer to yet another happy ending.
Under Guardiola, Barcelona obtained an impressive 50 of the 57 possible points in the first half of the season—the best start in Spanish league history—building a commanding double digit point lead over second place Real Madrid.
This season, the club have stringed together separate winning streaks of nine and 10 games in La Liga, and have not lost in the league since the first match of the season, a 1-0 result against Numancia.
The first-year manager, understanding what it was to be a star at Barcelona from his playing days at the club from 1990 to 2001, has invoked a sense of confidence and trust into his players.
That confidence had Argentinean international Lionel Messi telling a Catalan newspaper: "He [Guardiola] understands us so well because on the inside it feels like he's playing alongside us."
Guardiola's work has also had a steadying effect on his boss' job.
While some minor opposition to Laporta remains within some of the club's shareholders, only a massive scandal or collapse would now prevent him from fulfilling his term (that ends in 2010) as president of the club.
Eternally trading punches year after year, Real Madrid and Barcelona, the two Spanish titans, have given the world Los Galácticos, Ronaldinho & Rijkaard as well as the Schuster era in just the past decade.
With the balance seemingly shifted once more, millions of Barcelona fans can only help but wonder, will we be looking back on Guardiola's New Dream Team in just a few years?
Only time will tell. Just ask the odds makers.
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