Old colleagues will reunite on opposite sides when Barcelona hosts Manchester City in arguably the pick of the matchups in all of the Champions League group stage Wednesday. Less than two months after departing, goalkeeper Claudio Bravo will return to the club where he won two league titles. His new coach, Pep Guardiola, comes home to the club closest to his heart for a battle of wits with a former teammate.
Guardiola spent five years alongside current Barcelona coach Luis Enrique in the Catalans’ midfield, winning two league titles together. Enrique has gone on to match Guardiola’s early feats as a coach, claiming a Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey treble in his first season before lifting the league title once again in his second.
“When we first met as players, it was really easy to see that Luis was special,” Guardiola said in his press conference ahead of Wednesday’s Group C encounter. “He's direct, honest and very hard working. He's already had a lot of success and he'll have a lot more in the future. In fact, both he and his team do many things better than when I was in charge.”
The two men have already gone up against each other as coaches once before. On that occasion, it was Enrique’s Barcelona that came out on top in emphatic fashion over Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinals in 2015. Still, for Guardiola, returning to the club where he spent almost all his career as a player and won 14 trophies as a coach continues to carry added significance.
“It was a year and a half ago that I came here with Bayern Munich, it’s always special for me to sit here,” he added. “I spend a lot of time here. It’s a stadium that is part of my life, I grew up here, it’s always special, especially when I see people that I like to see.”
Guardiola’s remarkable success at the Camp Nou, both in terms of trophies and a playing style that was seen as the ultimate embodiment of the club’s ideals, means every subsequent coach has inevitably faced comparisons. Enrique is no different. And, despite his impressive trophy haul, there has been scrutiny of a playing style that centers more on quickly getting the ball to the team’s devastating front three of Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar than monopolizing possession. Enrique, though, insists that controlling the ball is still a huge part of his philosophy.
“Yes, I give importance to the ball too,” he said. “And if you look at our games, in 95 percent of them we have more possession, which we want to generate chances and to defend ourselves better.
“But there are moments when you use other ideas. Tomorrow won’t be one of them – possession is fundamental. If they have the ball, we’re weaker. If we have the ball, they’re weaker. That doesn’t necessarily mean, though, that the team who has more of the ball will win the game.”
On Wednesday, Enrique will be without the man brought in to replace Bravo, Jasper Cillessen, through an ankle injury. However, Messi is set to start after returning from injury and getting a goal three minutes after coming on as a substitute in a 4-0 win over Deportivo La Coruña on Saturday. Manchester City, which was held to a 1-1 draw at home to Everton on the same day, will be without Bacary Sagna and Fabian Delph.
D: Zabaleta, Stones, Otamendi, Kolarov
M: Fernandinho, Gündoğan
Sterling, Silva, De Bruyne
G: Ter Stegen
D: Sergi Roberto, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba
M: Rakitić, Busquets, Iniesta
F: Messi, Suárez, Neymar