Paris’ Stade de France. May 17th 2006. Arsenal vs FC Barcelona for the UEFA Champions League. Barca trail ten man Arsenal by one goal to nil when Swedish legend Henrik Larsson replaces Mark Van Bommel in the sixty first minute. It was to be Larsson’s last game for the Blaugrana, before he returned to his native Sweden, and he made sure he went out with a bang. Setting up first Samuel Eto’o for the equaliser, and then Julian Belletti for the winner, Larsson’s cameo in the Parisian rain would prove pivotal in the history of FC Barcelona. Despite winning only their second European Cup, and first for fourteen years, this night would prove to be the beginning of the end for the Dutch coach Frank Rijkaard. Meanwhile, in Mexico, Pep Guardiola was just wrapping up his playing career having appeared ten times for Dorados de Sinaloa.
The season that followed, 2006/07, showed evidence that the rot was beginning to set in for Rijkaard’s Barcelona. Roy Keane famously commented following Manchester United’s 1999 Champions League final victory, ironically in the Camp Nou, that some players remarked that they didn’t care if they never won another trophy. It was as if they had achieved a goal and would not have the desire nor the inclination to scale those heights again. Success can make people, it can also break them. For Rijkaard’s Barcelona it was the latter. The club lost their two year grip on the league title to eternal rivals Real Madrid on the head-to-head rule after amassing the same points haul, despite having a superior goal difference. In Europe, Barca dismally defended the trophy won on that rainy night in Paris, dumped out in the last sixteen. They finished as runners up in the UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup and exited the Copa Del Rey at the semi-final stage. Their solitary success, coming at the start of the season, was the Spanish Super Cup, possibly the least prestigious of titles on offer that season. The one bright spark: a young Lionel Messi continued his apprenticeship, clocking up 26 appearances and netting 14 times.
2007/08 would see the continuation of the team’s decline and would prove to be the last of Rijkaard’s five seasons in the hot seat. The squad finished third in the league, a disaster by Barca’s high standards, and reached the semi-finals of the domestic and European cups. Key men Ronaldinho and Deco continued their slump. The previously talismanic Brazilian would only appear 26 times this season, scoring a measly nine goals (down from 24 in 49 the previous term). Naturalised Portuguese playmaker Deco made 29 appearances (down from 47 the previous year), scoring only once. He would, however, pick up twelve yellow cards, one for each start. Lionel Messi consolidated his statistics from the previous season in terms of goals and game time. With more experienced players ahead of him and injuries associated with his growth, he never become an influential player under Rijkaard.
Behind the scenes during Rijkaard’s swan song season , Pep Guardiola was beginning his managerial career, overseeing the clubs B Team. His one and only season with Barca B was a successful one. The man who had been ball boy, player and captain was continuing his ascension in the corridors of power at the Camp Nou and would be installed in the hot seat following Rijkaard’s departure. More experienced candidates were mooted, one being Jose Mourinho, but president Joan Laporta stuck to his guns and appointed the relatively inexperienced Guardiola. At the time of the appointment, respected journalist and Spanish football expert Graham Hunter called it a “bad decision,” one that Laporta “will regret.” The history books will tell us otherwise. Laporta’s decision would prove a masterstroke.
Following a successful spell with Bayern Munich, Guardiola will leave at the end of this season, with the rumour mill declaring Manchester City the favourites to land the person who has become the hottest property in football management. On the one hand Guardiola is lauded for his wonderful football, based on incessant possession, guile and attacking verve. He’s credited with changing football over the last decade, aided by innovative tactics. There are detractors though. While nobody will go as far as to say he’s a bad coach, there are numerous people that think he’s a “flat track bully”, someone who picks the “easy” challenges. There is no doubting that FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich are two of the game’s heavyweights, but it is revisionist to think that the job he did at Barcelona in particular was simple, or a job that anyone could have done.
As detailed, Guardiola arrived following two poor seasons for the club following that night in Paris. Not only had Barca gone two years without a meaningful trophy, the squad was in need of a severe overhaul. Football works in cycles, and Rijkaard’s Barca wasn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, team to fall from grace following a period of success. Guardiola’s first job, and a brave one for an inexperienced coach, was to dispense of the out-of-form and allegedly disruptive pair of Ronaldinho and Deco. Neither would ever again in the remainder of their careers reach the heights they scaled in the colours of FC Barcelona. The third wheel in that trio, Cameroonian Samuel Eto’o, was given a one year stay of execution by Guardiola, after knuckling down in pre-season. The new coach also bravely promoted players that had served him so well in the B Team. Sergio Busquets was one of those players, and his emergence would eventually lead the the exit of Yaya Toure, now thought of as one of the best midfielders in the self-proclaimed “best league in the world”, the English Premier League. Pedro, now also plying his trade in England, with Chelsea, was another to be given his chance by Guardiola. Lionel Messi, out of Ronaldinho’s shadow, would become integral to the team, appearing regularly in the side and scoring almost one goal per game during Guardiola’s tenure. Gerard Pique, a product of Barca’s famed youth system, was “brought home” for a remarkable fee of five million Euros after failing to establish himself at Manchester United. Dani Alves, a rampaging right sided player that would prove crucial to the team, arrived from Sevilla.
Aside from taking control of the dressing room by kicking out disruptive players, proving shrewd in the transfer market and trusting in young home grown players, perhaps Guardiola’s masterstroke was the reinvention of Xavi. Under Rijkaard the diminutive midfielder’s form had dipped, almost leading to his exit in 2008. Pep allegedly convinced him that he was crucial to his plans. He was given more attacking duties, and would go on to prove himself as one of the generations great midfielders. Guardiola’s achievements with Barca have been well documented, and the side will go down as one of the greatest ever. But as Pep embarks on the next phase of his career don’t be fooled into thinking success in Barcelona was a given, he deserves way more credit than that.