Barca's Guardiola lost his Pep

JAMES LAWTON, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:21 PM ET

There is an obligation to praise Pep Guardiola, the erstwhile coach of the until recently all-conquering Barcelona soccer team, in the highest terms, not only for his huge success — 13 trophies, including two European Cups in four years — but also his insistence that if the game isn’t beautiful it simply isn’t worth playing.

He was, for a relatively brief but most coruscating time, the game’s ultimate solder-artist.

This, surely, is giving the apparently jaded young Caeser of coaching not a centavo more than his due.

However, it is still necessary, rather than niggardly, to say that some of the eulogies that came on Friday when, with tearful players in attendance, he announced his need for a year-long sabbatical, flew so far over the top they were in danger of collecting snow up in the sierra.

Firmly in this category, you have to believe, is the widely accepted belief that Roman Abramovich is in a fever to sign the coach who has, like it or not, walked away from the most basic challenge that can ever face a heavyweight member of his trade.

It is the obligation to re-make a great team, not as the kind of much trumpeted “project” so haplessly announced by the ill-fated Andres Villas-Boas at Chelsea, but as a seamless response to evidence that a once superb team is in need of some re-shaping.

Maybe the requirement is major surgery; perhaps it is just a nip and a tuck. This is not of ultimate importance, not compared to the vital need for a new sense of where a deeply frustrated team is heading.

Certainly in the case of a team as stocked with natural born brilliance as Barca you have to believe that some measured tinkering would be an adequate response.

Messi, Xavi and Iniesta didn’t shed their reputation as one of the most sublimely effective triumvirates in the history of football against Real Madrid and Chelsea, in which they were knocked out of the La Liga title race and the Champions League. They suggested a more sharp need for a shift in direction, a little new impetus and inspiration, which of course was the job of their extravagantly lauded coach.

Maybe Guardiola is being merely smart. Perhaps he is going to the bank where he has such huge reserves to cash in a little breathing space.

His kudos is so massive that he may well be able to afford to hand the reins to his Man Friday, Tito Vilonova, for a year, then return, perhaps after the signing of someone like Robin van Persie and an adjustment to the role of Messi, and then face the future again with a fresh set of garlands.

In the meantime, Abramovich might ponder the fact that he would be giving Guardiola precisely the chore that was dumped into the lap of Roberto di Matteo. This was to create something positive from what had come to resemble a football version of civil war.

We have to wait for the Champions League and FA Cup finals to know quite the extent of the temporary manager’s achievement but already it is not much short of breath-taking. He has done something that was expected of Guardiola before the pivotal games with Real Madrid and Chelsea. He gave his players a new sense of who they were and what they might just achieve.

Guardiola apparently had nothing new to offer before the trials at the Bernabeu and Nou Camp. In fact he was hinting of his resignation as long ago as last spring. When Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was told of the possibility, he had just a few words of caution for his young conqueror after the Champions League final settled by the brilliance of Messi.

He said that in the football life it was a rare privilege to work with players of the quality of the Argentine and Xavi and Messi. It was, he sighed, something that might never come again.

That, anyway, was the reflection of a football man not without certain achievement, one who was already facing again the need to build a fourth team carrying his signature. It is, of course, the tyranny that football sooner or later imposes on everyone, this requirement to make a new side.

Maybe Guardiola always knew it well enough — and was this week merely delaying the end of a charmed existence.

— James Lawton writes for The Independent newspaper in the U.K.


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