Pep returns to site of triumph
It's been nearly 20 years since Pep Guardiola helped Barcelona win its first European Cup title at Wembley as a young midfielder. When he returns there this week as coach of the Spanish powerhouse, it's his unflinching belief in the style of play he learned under predecessor Johan Cruyff that has the team on the cusp of greatness again.
Barcelona will take on Manchester United for Europe's biggest trophy for the second time in three years, and another victory Saturday would cement the Spanish champion's place among the all-time great teams.
And no one is better suited than Guardiola to guide Barcelona back to London.
Guardiola was in his second season with the club and playing under Cruyff when the Catalan team won the tournament for the first time with a 1-0 victory over Sampdoria at Wembley in 1992.
Since taking over as coach in 2008, he has helped the team perfect the type of attacking soccer that Cruyff initially implemented at the club - largely by identifying each player's strength and knowing how to utilize it within the system.
''He always looked at the best qualities of himself, just like with his team,'' Cruyff told The Associated Press in a recent telephone interview. ''The big difference with a lot of other teams is that the these types of players are not very big or strong, they are just very good footballers, they use the ball to play well. And that's one of the things that Guardiola did so good because physically he was not strong.''
Of course, it helps to have players like Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez on the team. But the same talent was there in the two seasons before Guardiola's arrival, when the club went without a trophy.
''One of the key factors in Guardiola's work at the Barcelona helm is being able to make things simpler. Simplifying the game is something that we really work on every day in training,'' Brazil fullback Daniel Alves, one of Guardiola's first signings, told FIFA.com. ''He's a very reasonable man, he knows the players well and knows exactly what they need.''
The 40-year-old Guardiola knows from experience that his team's strength is playing the Barcelona way - with strong upfield pressure to win the ball, short combination passing to keep possession, angled runs into space to create relentless attacks that often end up overwhelming the opponent.
It's the only style that Guardiola seems to know, and no one expects him to adopt a cautious approach against United.
''We'll look for the things that will help us attack best. And we'll attack from the start,'' Guardiola said Monday, before repeating his intention for emphasis. ''We'll attack, yes. Yes.''
Guardiola also promised to attack two years ago in the final in Rome and, despite a nervy start, the team kept its promise and overpowered United in a 2-0 victory.
Both Barcelona and United are looking for a fourth European Cup, which would equal Bayern Munich and Ajax as the fourth most successful clubs in the tournament. It would be fitting for Guardiola to match Ajax's total, since the Dutch club is where Cruyff learned the attacking style first as a player and then as a coach.
Frank Rijkaard led Barcelona to two Spanish league trophies and the 2006 Champions League title, but then lost control of the dressing room. Guardiola took over and got rid of Ronaldinho and Deco, while Samuel Eto'o left one season later despite scoring in the Rome final. His replacement Zlatan Ibrahimovic also exited after just one season.
But while Guardiola tinkered, Barcelona kept winning.
Complacency is Guardiola's greatest fear, and one of the reasons why he may not extend his contract beyond 2012 when it ends. And there have been signs lately that the relentless pressure of being in charge of one of the world's top clubs may be getting to him.
He uncharacteristically lost his cool and exploded in an expletive-filled rant directed at Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho before the Champions League semifinals, as the tension of four matches between the bitter rivals culminated and Guardiola had been goaded repeatedly by the former Barcelona assistant.
Cruyff believes internal politics may be playing a role, also.
''Football is something that goes from year to year, so it's always good to do cycles of one year. It's always good to just sign for one year because you can see whatever happens you're not a problem for the club when the contract is still going on. There are too many things involved that make no sense, which have nothing to do with the game,'' said Cruyff, who believes some management decisions have undercut Guardiola.
Injuries left Guardiola short-handed in defense over the second half of the season, his thin bench lacking support after the club decided to sell Dmytro Chygrynskiy before the start of the season. New president Sandro Rosell said the sale was necessary due to the club's cash shortfall, repeatedly blaming former president Joan Laporta for the situation.
Guardiola's future is likely to be the subject of more speculation after Saturday's game, when he has the chance to surpass Cruyff's European accomplishments on the same field where the Dutchman helped begin Barcelona's current period of success.
''I want them to be conscious of what we are playing for,'' Guardiola said. ''Many of the players have won lots of things and to win, you have to do lots of things right. Their desire to be European Champions is what will mark the final.''