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Page last updated at 07:22 GMT, Wednesday, 28 April 2010 08:22 UK

Guardiola the conqueror

Josep Guardiola

Champions League semi-final, second leg
Venue: Camp Nou Date: Wednesday 28 April Kick-off: 1945 BST
Coverage: Text commentary on BBC Sport website, live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live and live on ITV1

By Sam Lyon

"Pep is the best coach I have ever had."

Those are the words of Spain and Barcelona midfielder Xavi, widely regarded as one of the world's finest central midfielders and a key part of a Barca side that won six trophies last season and are on course for another treble.

He is of course referring to Josep Guardiola, a man who took on the role of manager at one of the biggest clubs in the world on the back of a single season as a senior coach - and won it all. Literally.

Quite simply, says Barcelona and Denmark legend Michael Laudrup, "Over the last 20 years Barca have had some great teams, but in terms of quality, I think individually this team now is the best."

Guardiola, steeped in the club's philosophy as a result of his time there as player from the age of just 11, has led his boyhood club firmly back to the glory years - and ahead of their semi-final with Inter Milan, the Catalan giants' renaissance shows no sign of abating.

So, how has he done it?

Firstly Guardiola, the man referred to by Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas only this month as "my idol", has been able to build the Barcelona team on the back of the utmost respect which he enjoys in the Barcelona dressing room.

The difference under Guardiola was the attention to detail. The side always had quality, but he found a mixture and it was just what we needed

Former Barcelona striker, now with Tottenham, Eidur Gudjohnsen

Part of this can firmly be attributed to his background, the fact he is drenched in the philosophy of the club, and the huge stature he enjoys as a result of his hugely successful time as a player at Camp Nou.

As Barca president Juan Laporta refers to him: "He is the best central midfielder in our history".

But also, as a manager, Guardiola has proved himself to be a man who will make brave decisions, regardless of the egos of his players, as Thierry Henry is currently finding out.

As England manager Fabio Capello notes: "He has no problem leaving big players on the bench. That shows character and confidence - the first principles of good management. Guardiola has shown a great talent for leading a dressing room."

Upon his arrival at the club, Guardiola immediately sold a wealth of names from the 'old guard'. Ronaldinho and Gianluca Zambrotta were offloaded to AC Milan, Deco to Chelsea and Edmilson to Villarreal. Guardiola was also in the process of selling Lilian Thuram before a heart condition prompted the veteran defender's retirement.

And in his preparation and work ethic, Guardiola crucially changed the team's approach.

"The difference under Guardiola was the attention to detail," says former Barcelona striker Eidur Gudjohnsen, now at Tottenham. "The manager changed the thinking of the team and its organisation on and off the field.

JOSEP GUARDIOLA FACTFILE
Josep Guardiola
DOB: 18 Jan 1971
POB: Santpedor, Spain
TEAMS MANAGED
2007-08: Barcelona 'B'
2008-: Barcelona

"There were a lot of meetings, a lot of studying opponents. The side always had quality, but Guardiola found a mixture and it was just what we needed."

Spanish football expert Graham Hunter adds: "Guardiola brings an obsessive analysis - of his team, of the way the team play, and of the team's opponents. As a player he was a genuine student of the game, but his attention to detail and knowledge of football has grown exponentially since then."

His own work ethic was soon transferred to the team, too.

A student of Cruyff as a player, under whom he won four league titles and the club's first Champions League in 1996, Guardiola's philosophy is utterly consistent with the best Barcelona sides in recent history.

If Dutch coach Rinus Michels gave the world "Total Football", then Barca are currently its best exponents, with Guardiola the latest coach to employ its methods and philosophy to devastating effect.

Barcelona and Guardiola have hugely benefitted from the best and most expensive youth academy in the game, with seven of the team that won last year's Champions League having come through the ranks.

But Guardiola added something. As good as they were - and consistently have been - with the ball, Guardiola pressed upon his players the need to win it back, to press high up the pitch, for every player from front to back to do their bit.

"People look at the collective and of course they are impressed by the passing, the movement and the shape," says Gudjohnsen. "But what most people don't see is what Guardiola has instilled - that strength and desire to win the ball high up the pitch.

"From the front to the back they put pressure on the opposition from the first minute until the last."

606: DEBATE
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The fact that Guardiola has been there and done it as a player is also a bonus, says former Inter Milan and current Barcelona striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who played under Mourinho before moving to the Nou Camp.

"The main difference between the two is that Guardiola is more active, by which I mean when he explains something on the training pitch he can physically demonstrate what he's looking for, because he was a top-class player," says the Swede.

"But both have a great attitude and a huge desire for success. They're both able to explain very clearly what they want and are direct when dealing with players. Simply, they're both winners."

It is hard to argue Guardiola was not fortunate to assume a quality set of players, of course.

As one young manager, soon after being sacked, told me: "Good players can make you a good manager, great players can make you a great manager."

One of those, Lionel Messi, is unarguably one of the greatest players in the world, and he is sure to be a main focus in Tuesday's Champions League semi-final at the San Siro.

But even the sensational Argentine playmaker attributed his success to the "special relationship" he enjoys with Guardiola after winning the Ballon D'Or by a record margin last year.

This Barcelona team is the best team I've ever seen

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger

This season has seen Guardiola tweak his and Barcelona's usual 4-3-3 formation following the signing of Ibrahimovic from Inter.

As with Samuel Eto'o before him, Ibrahimovic is expected and encouraged to run the channels and spread the play.

However, the Swede's inclusion in the team has seen Guardiola bring Messi in from the wings more often, giving the 22-year-old the freedom to express himself in the areas that hurt the opposition more through the middle. Messi has responded with a record tally of 40 goals so far.

And if any further testimonies of Guardiola's Barcelona were needed, how about Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger's reaction to his side's 6-3 Champions League quarter-final demolition by Barca this month?

"This Barcelona team is the best team I've ever seen and the best team I've ever faced," says the Frenchman. "They play at a higher pace collectively and I don't think we have ever been dominated so badly."

Of course, as one of the oldest adages in the game underlines, you're only as good as your last game, and no manager in history has ever retained the Champions League title.

For Guardiola, history awaits.

Part I: Clash of the Titans

Part II: The making of Mourinho



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see also
Mourinho taunts 'obsessed' Barca
27 Apr 10 |  Europe
Barcelona 1-0 Inter Milan (agg 2-3)
28 Apr 10 |  Europe
Clash of the Titans
19 Apr 10 |  Europe
The making of Mourinho
28 Apr 10 |  Europe
Inter Milan 3-1 Barcelona
20 Apr 10 |  Europe


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