The Return of the King

The total number of major trophies is staggering: 7 in 4 years. There are the other, lesser trophies: 7 of them too. There is the sense that what was a team on the brink of greatness is now firmly entrenched in the history books as one of the greatest club sides of all time. There are new words in the global lexicon to describe the team’s rise and recycled terms re-introduced to the contemporary generation: tiki-taka, false 9, true 10, libero. There are heirs to thrones and entirely new dynastic roots. There are images that are seared in our minds and statements we like to repeat. This is the legacy of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona.

But make no mistake, this is also the enemy.

It is not about hating Pep Guardiola—that seems impossible—but it is about looking at today through unblinkered eyes. It is about remembering that whatever he gave to the team before—and it is an unpayable debt—today is today and yesterday is yesterday. Luis Enrique’s accomplishments 2 years into his tenure mirror those of his legendary predecessor (8 trophies apiece). They were teammates and friends, they won a gold medal together at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona (Pep in the #9, Lucho in the #8), and they worked together as first team manager and reserve team manager, but now they face off in a group stage match on the biggest club stage: the Champions League. It’s not hard to imagine a hero’s welcome before kickoff and then a towering inferno after the whistle sounds.

It is not about hating Pep Guardiola. It is not about hating Manchester City, the nouveau riche, or the new corporate overlords of global football. It is not about hating anyone or anything, but it is also not about adulation or pining for old times. Guardiola may very well return to the club one day—perhaps at the behest of President Pique—to work alongside Manager Xavi or Mascherano, but for now he works on the other side of the divide. He is not a bad person for having chosen to leave us, for having chosen Bayern Munich and then Manchester City, or for getting paid extremely handsomely for his decisions.

But make no mistake, Lucho will attack Pep’s weaknesses and attempt to burn him with fire.

It is not about hating Pep Guardiola. It is about loving this team and cheering for it. It is about enjoying the brand of football that will be on display and the scintillating moves from Messi, Neymar, Iniesta, and Pique. It is about kind of clutching yourself a bit when Ter Stegen gets the ball, only to see a pass drop sweetly into the path of a charging chipmunk or wavy haired Croatian. It is about the spectacle of 98,000 fans wearing the appropriate shade of blue and roaring their hearts out. It isn’t about clipping the wings of an up-and-coming European powerhouse, but it is about asserting our own sense of self within that sphere. We are no longer the underdogs, but this should not change our feelings for our team. It does not also put our management or players beyond reproach or take away from the legitimacy of any criticisms leveled at them, but keeping perspective is extremely important.

Guardiola goes to operas and speaks in the hushed tones of an academic while Lucho barrels down the side of a mountain on a bike; Guardiola is quoted at length in literary works while Lucho is, well, not. One is stylish while the other insists on sneakers with his suits. Both have won everything and both don’t take crap at press conferences.

But make no mistake, this is Barcelona vs. Manchester City, not us against Pep.

So what of Manchester City? They sit joint top of the Premier League table with 19 points from 8 matches (19GF, 8GA) while Barcelona sit joint 4th in La Liga with 16 points from 8 played (26GF, 10GA). It’s hard to directly compare the two, of course, but Manchester City has stuttered of late with a loss and a draw in succession to put an end to their previously unbeaten league record. Previously they played the teams currently ranked 20, 19, 18, 15, 11, and 7, with a combined 1 clean sheet. They lost to the 3rd placed team and drew with the 6th. Barcelona, who have stuttered in their own right against mediocre opposition, have lost to the 12th and 9th ranked teams, but have won against teams ranked 18, 16, 15, 11, and 6 while also drawing against top-of-the-table Atletico. There were 3 clean sheets in there, though allowing 4 at Celta Vigo wasn’t a brilliant move. Neither team, therefore, is firing on all cylinders, but it could still be incredibly entertaining because these are fantastic attacking sides that occasionally give up silly goals.

Looking at their Champions League records, City cruised by Borussia Mochengladbach 4-0 then surprisingly drew 3-3 away to Celtic; Barca beat Gladbach in Germany after coming from a goal down to win 1-2, but started the campaign by absolutely thrashing Celtic at the Camp Nou to the tune of 7-0. Barcelona therefore sit top of the group with 6 points and City are in 2nd with 4 points. This match could easily determine the final order, though the “second leg” in Manchester on November 1 should be the real decider, especially if Gladbach and Celtic split points along the way. What’s clear is that fireworks are possible tomorrow night and that is exactly what I would like to see.

Kevin de Bruyne, Sergio Aguero, David Silva.

Neymar, Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi.

These are just some of the attackers on display for each team and that’s the epitome of mouth-watering.Claudio Bravo, Nolito, and, of course, Pep Guardiola return to the Camp Nou (Yaya isn’t in the CL squad) so there will be plenty to applaud before and after kickoff. There will be darting runs and slick passing as well as a back-and-forth on who can hold the ball the most effectively. The first 15 or so minutes should be frenetic, possibly frantic, and hopefully fantastic before things settle down and Barcelona’s quality shines through.

But make no mistake, this is not a friendly. This is about 3 points and about effectively ensuring continuity in the Champions League through at least the first round of the knockout stage. This is about showing that while Guardiola’s 2008-2012 Barça were magnificent, loveable, and all-together fantastic to watch, this is now the 2016-17 Barça and it too is all of those things. Before you point out that maybe Luis Suarez’s antics make them not so lovable, my counterpoint is Andres Iniesta. Checkmate.

The king, then, comes back, but there is a new king named Luis Enrique. He is now The Man at Barça. Along with Andres Iniesta, of course. And that little dictator, Messi. And Reymar. And Luis Suarez’s maté provider. And Ter Stegen’s ego.

Prediction: 3-1, Barça.

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