Pep Guardiola wakes up sweating in his New York apartment, freed by the brilliant Manhattan skyline from the recurring nightmare that has haunted his sleep for months.
Having returned to management with a new club—let's call them Chelsea—he finds himself up against Barcelona and the cast he made familiar to millions.
The teams are waiting in the tunnel. Scanning across, Guardiola darts his nervous eyes from Xavi, to Andres Iniesta, to Gerard Pique, to Lionel Messi. For a brief moment, he fights the urge to leave his position and stand ahead of them.
Across from him is Tito Vilanova, Guardiola's friend and the man he handed a dynasty to. A glint appears in Vilanova's eye as he returns his mentor's smile and, in that moment, Guardiola senses their familiar roles are about to be reversed.
Vilanova is no longer Guardiola's man-in-waiting. And the generosity Guardiola showed in his abdication will have no bearing on the manner in which Vilanova will treat the task at hand.
They are his Barcelona now. Vilanova wants Guardiola to know it. Slowly and deliberately, he exchanges knowing looks with the players Guardiola once went to war with—it's as if he's telling them to show no mercy.
What hurts Guardiola is the fact they return them. And in the eyes of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, there's a fervour he's never seen before. "They want to humiliate me," comes the whispering voice inside Guardiola's head. "They're going to humiliate me."
It's at this moment when sheer terror strikes. Guardiola's heart is pounding to the rhythm of tiki-taka, and he begins to wonder if he's made a terrible, terrible mistake. "I should never have left them," comes the voice again. "I should never have come back," he replies to it.
And with that thought comes the sheer relief of another New York morning.
This might be a work of fiction, but it's hard to believe Guardiola hasn't at least entertained a version of this nightmare since stepping down from Barca at the end of last season.
At Camp Nou, he was the manager who had everything. Some he inherited, much he built, but he will never come close to replicating the experience he had crafting Barca into the best football team on the planet.
He knew Barca as a player. He knew them as coach of their B team. The side he led to world domination was built largely around players the club had developed from within.
Barca was Guardiola's football family. Whatever comes next will be in dramatic contrast, and he'll feel isolated by comparison.
Should he choose Chelsea, as many are suggesting he will, Guardiola will not be short on talent. Eden Hazard, Juan Mata, Fernando Torres, Oscar, Ramires—these are players who can play the Guardiola way, and there are resources available to bring in plenty more.
But what of the looming presence of Roman Ambramovich? Is Guardiola prepared to be dictated to by the notoriously fickle and impatient Chelsea owner, in the same way his managers have been in the past?
You wouldn't think so, but maybe Ambramovich is prepared to give way.
A report in the Telegraph in April suggested Ambramovich was so sold on Guardiola he was ready to hand him "carte blanche" over team affairs and transfers. Chelsea didn't get their man that time around, but the speculation is they haven't given up trying.
Six months later, Chelsea have denied making a fresh approach to Guardiola (Telegraph). With the club in danger of missing out of the Champions League knockout stages, it hasn't taken long for the rumor mill to kick into overdrive, and Roberto Di Matteo's immediate future to be put in doubt.
Based on Ambramovich's track record, this is hardly surprising.
Nor is the assertion that Guardiola is said to be a big fan of the way Chelsea are playing this season. Di Matteo has added an attacking sparkle to the team that won the Champions League, and Chelsea have played some of the best football in Europe.
Will that be enough to tempt Guardiola back to the dugout? We'll have to wait and see, but if Chelsea fail to beat Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday night, he might even have a decision to make before Christmas.
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