Pep Guardiola will return to his spiritual home of the Camp Nou on Wednesday night with a team that, according to defender Gerard Pique, he has already molded in the image of his all-conquering Barcelona side.
Just a few months after taking the reins at Manchester City, Guardiola will take his new squad to take on the club whose style he embodied as both a player and a coach. But Pique, who was a key member of the side that won two Champions League titles as part of a remarkable 14-trophy haul in four years under Guardiola, believes that he has quickly made a big impact in Manchester.
“Pep has made them change their approach to football,” he said in a press conference ahead of the game. “It’s similar to our style. They bring pressure up the field, they create pressure on the outlet. It’s a different team than under [former manager, Manuel] Pellegrini. They create pressure differently, more like us. Pep understands the game like we do.”
In terms of results, however, Guardiola’s strong start has taken a dent in recent weeks. After winning nine straight matches to begin his tenure in England, including brushing aside Borussia Monchengladbach 4-0 in its opening match of its Champions League group stage, Manchester City has now gone three matches without a win.
That stumble began in the Champions League three weeks ago when being held by Celtic in a thrilling 3-3 draw in Glasgow. It was then followed by a defeat to Tottenham and draw with Everton in the Premier League. And it leaves City, which will also feature former Barcelona goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, not only likely needing a positive result at the Camp Nou to maintain hope of topping Group C but also taking nothing for granted in terms of progressing to the knockout phase.
In two of the last three years, Manchester City’s run in the Champions League was ended in the first knockout round by Barcelona. Indeed under Pellegrini City lost all four legs against the Catalan giants.
Guardiola has also tasted disappointment on his only previous return to Barcelona, going down 3-0 in the first leg of the Champions League semifinals in 2015 when in charge of Bayern Munich. It was the crown jewel of his Barcelona side, Lionel Messi, who did the damage that day with two exceptional goals. And, unfortunately for Guardiola, Messi has returned to fitness just in time to lead Barcelona’s charge against City on Wednesday.
In his first match back from a thigh injury, Messi came off the bench against Deportivo La Coruña on Saturday and needed just three minutes to find the net in a 4-0 Barcelona win. And Pique is certain that Guardiola will be under no illusions about the difficulty in stopping the five-time Ballon d’Or winner.
“Ask Pep,” Pique said. “Messi is the best in the world. His mere presence is a difference-maker.”
On Wednesday, Messi is now expected to join the other two members of Barcelona’s record-breaking front three, Luis Suarez and Neymar, in the starting lineup for just the fifth time this season. The trio has played the full 90 minutes just once together and that was in Barcelona’s 7-0 demolition of Celtic on Match Day 1 of the Champions League, when they combined for six goals and six assists.
Barcelona’s second match in this season’s Champions League wasn’t nearly as comfortable, but a late goal from Pique gave the five-time European champions a 2-1 win.
Prediction: Despite recent results, Guardiola has made an impressive early impact at Manchester City. However, they remain a work in progress, particularly at the back. Tottenham and Everton showed how vulnerable City can be in transition and Barcelona’s scintillating attacking trio look primed to take full advantage.
Predicted Score: Barcelona 3-1 Manchester City
Venue:Camp Nou, Barcelona
Date: Wednesday, Oct. 18
Time: 2:45 p.m. EDT