The shadow of Pep Guardiola loomed large at the Camp Nou, even before last Friday’s Champions League semifinal draw paired Barcelona with Guardiola’s current side, Bayern Munich. It is exactly three years since the former mastermind midfielder walked away from the club of his heart, leaving the Catalans with an almighty void that they have desperately struggled to fill since. And yet, victory for Barcelona over Bayern next month could put them within touching distance of matching Guardiola’s treble triumph of his glorious first season in charge.
That would represent an extraordinary turnaround. Since Guardiola’s departure the club has often appeared desperately lacking in direction both on and off the pitch. After Joan Laporta had overseen the start of Guardiola’s glorious era as president, Sandro Rosell took over in 2010 to begin a reign that led to the club’s sharp fall from grace. Firstly, Guardiola’s replacement, Tito Vilanova, failed to be effectively replaced following his tragic illness. Last season, the team never appeared clear of what it was doing under the leadership of Argentinean Gerardo Martino, who had been thrust with haste in an enormously difficult situation.
The playing style developed by Dutchmen Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff and perfected by Guardiola ebbed away, while strengthening the squad in obvious deficient areas like center-back was neglected. More dramatically, Rosell departed in scandal last year over suggestions of impropriety over the transfer of Neymar. Still, at the start of this season Barcelona’s drifting appeared set to continue. New coach Luis Enrique had strong ties to Barcelona, but his limited coaching resume was decidedly mixed. And in January it appeared things had come to a head.
After Barcelona went down 1-0 to Real Sociedad in the first game after the winter break, sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta paid the price for poor decisions in the transfer market and the club incurring a transfer ban for breaching rules over signing players under the age of 18. Potentially even more significantly, the club’s greatest ever player Lionel Messi was reported to have had an angry falling out with Enrique after being left on the bench for the game. Barcelona’s record goalscorer put out suggestions that he was for the first time considering his future, and it seemed that either he or his coach would be on their way before long.
In that context, Barcelona’s form since that defeat has been remarkable, losing just twice in 26 matches. And Messi has been right at the heart of it. Under Guardiola, Messi became the absolute focal point of Barcelona’s attack, perhaps to the extent that it had a detrimental effect on the team and certainly the fortunes of big-money forward signings like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Villa. But since January, Messi has embraced a more withdrawn role -- part space-creating wide forward and part central playmaker. In turn that has allowed Neymar and the club’s big signing of last summer Luis Suárez to flourish.
The trio have been in sensational form, with the widely reported positive relationship between the three of them off the pitch being reflected in an ever-increasing on-pitch understanding. As a forward line they are unmatched anywhere in the world and have the chance to go down as one of the best of all time.
But Barcelona’s improvement has been based on more than just Messi, Neymar and Suárez. So often the source of calamity in recent seasons, Barcelona’s defense now has real resilience to it. Gerard Pique is back to his best, while Jeremy Mathieu has added needed steel. Enrique has imbued Barcelona with more variety, too, and they have increasingly shown a willingness and ability to be a direct threat through quick counter attacks.
As things stand, Barcelona sit two points clear of Real Madrid at the top of La Liga with five matches remaining. Already they have the Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao at the end of May to look forward to and, of course, that meeting with Bayern in the last four of the Champions League. Following in the path of Guardiola’s 2008-2009 team and achieving the treble for just the second time in the club’s history is very much a possibility. Given that Barcelona stand on course to better their points total from that campaign and potentially go through the mighty Bayern and greatest rivals Real Madrid to lift the Champions League, on paper it could be argued that it will be the greatest season ever at the Camp Nou.
Of course that remains to be seen. As things stand the near perfection of a team carrying out their coach’s philosophy and orders seen under Guardiola has yet to come close to being matched by Enrique’s men. And Guardiola’s Bayern will pose a massive challenge, having blended the Catalan’s short-passing philosophy with the more physical, direct elements already present within the squad he inherited. But if Enrique can mastermind a victory then he can complete a most unlikely turnaround from merely the latest underqualified pale Guardiola imitation to all-conquering coach of at least one of Barcelona’s finest ever teams.