Prodigal son Pep’s Nou Camp homecoming could be learning curve
Pep Guardiola will return to the Nou Camp turf he knows so well for the first time as opposition tactician, when he brings Bayern Munich to Catalonia for a crunch Champions League semi-final clash.
Having spent four fantastically successful seasons at the helm of perhaps the most brilliant Barcelona team to have graced that prestigious pitch, and many more before that as a midfielder and youth coach with the Catalan club, Guardiola set off for pastures new back in 2012.
For the bold boss, an emblem of all things Barca, Bayern, with their focus on forward thrust and wingplay, appeared an odd choice after Jupp Hecknyes had guided the German juggernauts to a historic treble.
The question was simply: how could possession-obsessed Pep possibly improve the magnificent Munich men? Should such a successful side be looking to fix what isn’t broken?
Two terms later, Guardiola has now certainly put his stamp on the Allianz Arena outfit, with a host of his compatriots, including deep-lying dictator Xabi Alonso, wonderful full back Juan Bernat and increasingly influential playmaker Thiago all important cogs in a more contemplative and intelligent Munich.
Ingenious Guardiola’s philosophy has surely taken time to implement at the Allianz but, as all great managerial masterminds do, the 44-year-old has also adapted to his surroundings.
Bayern are certainly no Barca-light, and there is often a directness in the Germans’ play previously unseen in a Guardiola team, as the Catalan coach appears to have reacted to the more physical nature of the Bundesliga.
His approach has been unquestionably effective, as Bayern (11/4 to win the Champions League) have lifted two league titles on the trot since their new coach took over, and both well before the end of term. The Bundesliga, however, is always a pre-requisite for any Munich manager and doubts remain over whether he is really the man for the job.
In a sense, self-effacing Guardiola is a victim of his own talents, having set the benchmark at Barca for what Bayern want to achieve: global domination. But for that they must be consistent continental kings.
Just two Champions League crowns since the turn of the Millennium is not a sufficient haul for the ambitious Bavarians, and being ripped apart by Real Madrid last season was certainly not part of the masterplan. A repeat almost occurred against Porto, before Guardiola’s guys replied in emphatic style to seal a battle with Barca, in perhaps their best performance under the Spaniard.
Guardiola should now return to Spain savvier, yet failure to beat his beloved boyhood club and former paymasters at their own game could see his stint at the Allianz unfairly dubbed a disaster by his standards.
Defeat in the DFB Pokal to Borussia Dortmund reminded fans of deficiencies, and Guardiola may need to focus on defence more than ever as he returns to his spiritual home. Ill-timed injuries to prominent players such as Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and David Alaba could also prove his undoing.
Barcelona have themselves evolved under Luis Enrique, however, with the focus now a little more on the flair of their fantastic forwards Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, instead of the intricacies of their midfield cast.
Now a slightly different beast, and one in fearsome form, full-strength Barca are obvious odds-on match-favourites at 8/11 to beat Bayern in the first-leg.
So, Guardiola will have to prove himself all over again at the Nou Camp, but this time to the travelling crowd, and pull something special out his bag of tricks, honed at La Masia, to ensure Munich make it to Berlin in May.