It may have been coming for a while but you have to pay tribute to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona for their achievements so far in a season that could still get even better.
Champions and Copa Del Rey winners, his side have dominated the Primera Division this year and are worthy winners. They can, of course, claim a treble with a win over Manchester United in the Champions League final in Rome next Wednesday.
It is hard to believe that many fans and press were questioning Guardiola’s abilities at the start of the season. A shock opening day defeat to Numancia and a home draw with Racing Santander was their worst start to a season for 25 years and doubts were raised about the wisdom of appointing such an inexperienced manager.
But credit to Guardiola he seems unaffected by pressure and rode out the storm. He has a steely determination and desire to play the right way and set about his task with confidence and focus.
By November it had swung the other way and many people were suddenly comparing the side to the dream team of the early ‘90s. A little too early to compare this side to the likes of Koeman and Stoichkov, but it was testament to the level of football Barca were playing week in week out.
Again as nice as it was to receive such praise it brought pressure of its own but Guardiola still appeared unruffled. He got the side playing the football he wanted them to and one which was brilliant to watch and virtually impossible to stop.
In the first half of the season six goals were smashed past Sporting Gijon, Atletico and Valladoild. Five despatched past Almeria and four past Malaga and Valencia as Barca stormed to the top of La Liga in style.
The stats also speak for themselves. They have amassed with 86 points from 35 games with 50 points on the board at the halfway stage. They have beaten the record for home wins in a row (9), were unbeaten from game 2 to game 24 and have scored almost three goals per game on average.
The turn of the year saw a resurgent Real under new boss Juande Ramos try to chip away at Barca’s lead. A draw with Betis and defeats to Atletico and Espanyol in early March threatened to de-rail Barca’s season but once again Guardiola‘s faith in his players and the style of football prevailed, culminating in El Clasico to end all El Clasicos.
You know it must have been something unique when one of your bitter rivals admit you played “great and special football.” This was exactly what Raul said after Real’s 6-2 mauling at the hands of Barca at the Bernabeu. The game effectively sealed the title, ending Ramos’s slim hopes of catching them and forced the footballing world to stand up and take notice (if they weren’t already on their feet).
All eyes now, of course, turn to Rome and the Champions League final with Manchester United. Though we mustn’t forget that Barca were very nearly not there. Chelsea’s frustrating tactics in the semi-final meant the likes of Henry, Messi and Eto’o couldn’t break free from the defensive shackles of the Londoners, until a moment of brilliance from Iniesta in the dying moments. It remains to be seen whether United play the same way. One thing is for sure and that is Barca will play one way, the only way they know how.
It can be seen as a weakness – sometimes you need to adapt the way you play and play ugly to win games. But Guardiola has such faith in his style and instilled such confidence in his players they believe they will steamroller over their opposition, whoever it maybe, on their terms.
I can’t see United being steamrollered, but I can’t see them employing the same tactics as Chelsea either. If both sides attack, it could be an all-time classic.