Football

BARCELONA coach Luis Enrique looks at his players (L-R) Ivan Rakitic, Pedro Rodriguez, Lionel Messi and Thomas Vermaelen during a training session at Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper in Sant Joan Despi near Barcelona, on Tuesday.—Reuters

BARCELONA coach Luis Enrique looks at his players (L-R) Ivan Rakitic, Pedro Rodriguez, Lionel Messi and Thomas Vermaelen during a training session at Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper in Sant Joan Despi near Barcelona, on Tuesday.—Reuters


BARCELONA: Pep Guardiola will return to the Camp Nou with the away side for the first time on Wednesday as Barcelona’s most successful coach takes Bayern Munich to the Catalan stronghold in the first-leg of their Champions League semi-final.

As a player Guardiola was a key cog of the Barca side that won their first ever European Cup in 1992. And as a coach he led the club to 14 trophies, including two Champions Leagues titles during a glorious four-year spell between 2008 and 2012 before heading to Germany.

Guardiola has already won the Bundesliga title this season how­ever he must now find a way to outwit former team-mate, the Barca coach Luis Enrique, and a host of his former charges including Lionel Messi who are in sensational form.

Having won 26 of their last 28 games in all competitions, Barca are on course to repeat the historic treble of La Liga, Champions League and Copa del Rey which they won in Guardiola’s first season in charge.

Messi and Luis Enrique, who calls Guardiola his “friend,” both said on Tuesday that the chance of reaching a European final was a greater motivation than facing the man already considered a club great.

“With Guardiola, besides the titles, which are the most important thing, I grew and learned a lot as a player,” Messi said. “He knows us, and we know what he wants and asks of his team. It’s 50-50, we all know each other very well.”

No other coach besides former Real Madrid nemesis Jose Mourinho has left his mark on European football like Guardiola, who perfected Barca’s passing style and implanted it at Bayern.

The possession-based approach has often worked, but when it hasn’t led to titles it has earned Guardiola the criticism of being more interested with having the ball than putting it in the net.

The arrival of Luis Enrique to coach Barca, and, equally important, that of Luis Suarez to provide a traditional striker up front, has let Barca finally vary their tactics, which had atrophied since Guardiola left.

And while there may still be a question mark over Barca’s defence, their fearsome attacking trident is firing on all cylinders.
BARCELONA coach Luis Enrique looks at his players (L-R) Ivan Rakitic, Pedro Rodriguez, Lionel Messi and Thomas Vermaelen during a training session at Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper in Sant Joan Despi near Barcelona, on Tuesday.—Reuters

The South American trio of Messi, Neymar and Suarez reached a scorching 108 goals for the season following the La Liga leaders’ 8-0 destruction of Cordoba on Saturday, eight more than the previous club record set by Messi, Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry when Barca won the treble in 2009.

With a defence that has looked shaky at times this season, however, Barca’s hopes of reaching next month’s final at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium may hinge on them scoring more goals than they inevitably concede.

The Catalan giants have most of the same personnel at the back, including the likes of Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, Dani Alves and Marc Bartra, as when they crashed to a humiliating 7-0 aggregate defeat to Bayern in the last four of Europe’s elite club competition two years ago.

The rampant German champions won the first leg in Munich 4-0 and the return 3-0, the heaviest two-legged European defeat in Barca’s history, and Bayern went on to beat Bundesliga rivals Borussia Dortmund in the first all-German final.

“I don’t think Pep has any doubts about what we will do,” Luis Enrique said. “He knows the players, and he knows me as a coach because I was with the ‘B’ team when he was here.

“It will depend on who is more precise and responds better to given situations. We are both teams that need the ball to attack and defend. I think this will be one of the most attractive matches to see in Europe.”

Bayern’s top-scorer Robert Lewandowski looks set to play with a protective face mask despite breaking his nose and cheekbone in last week’s penalty shoot out defeat to Borussia Dortmund in the German Cup semi-finals and travelled with the team on Tuesday morning.

“I am not afraid but I have to see if it will be possible,” Lewandowski said.

The German champions will be without Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, David Alaba, Sebastian Rode and Holger Badstuber through injury, though.

Bayern’s plan for the first leg will be to try to limit the damage. The injury-depleted Bayern team are clearly placing their bets on the return leg in Munich next week.

“The semi-final must not be decided already in Barcelona,” Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said. “Ideally, we should score a goal and try not to lose, or at least lose by a close score. I would sign immediately under a 2-1 defeat.”

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