by Alex Dimond
So far so very, very good for Barcelona manager Josep “Pep” Guardiola.
His side sit proudly atop La Liga, and are comfortably through to the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Having replaced Frank Rijkaard — the manager who brought the 2006 Champions League trophy back to the Nou Camp — in the summer, a lot of pressure was on the unproven Guardiola. Having had no previous jobs, the former Spanish international’s only coaching experience was gained last season while working with the Barcelona B squad.
Yes, Guardiola was an outstanding player for the club (he played 263 games for them), but could he possibly replicate such feats as a manager?
Well, after an initial rocky spell — the Catalan giants failed to win either of their opening two league matches — the answer so far seems to be a resounding yes.
Los Culés enjoy a comfortable six-point lead at the top of La Liga, and comfortably won their Champions League group. What is more, the team seem to be going about their business with a flair and attacking verve reminiscent of the best parts of the Rijkaard era — having scored an incredible 64 goals in their 24 matches this season.
All well and good, certainly — but now the stakes have really been raised. Guardiola will experience his first Gran Clasico as a manager this weekend, as arch-rivals Real Madrid come to town.
Barca fans might be hugely supportive of their manager at the moment, but a defeat to Los Merengues will quickly cause a seismic shift in his popularity.
The match is far more than any other league game — indeed it is arguably the biggest derby match in world football. As a result, Guardiola’s team selection for Tuesday’s European tie against Shakhtar Donetsk can only be seen as a huge risk.
Having been enjoying a rich vein of form — they beat Sevilla 3-0, and then demolished title rivals Valencia 4-0 — Guardiola decided that with nothing on the line in the game he would make eight changes from the team’s winning formula.
Without Leo Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, or Carlos Puyol — to name just a few — the club unsurprisingly slipped to a disappointing 3-2 defeat. Their 21-match unbeaten streak was broken.
Ahead of Saturday, the question is obvious — why disrupt a winning formula ahead of the biggest match of the season?
Of course, it makes sense to preserve your best players for when they are needed most, but equally a period without match practice can often remove a player’s “edge”.
A competitive yet pressure free match in front of supportive home fans might have been a great way to prepare for a big clash. As it is, Guardiola has left himself open to accusations that he is overconfident, and underestimating the strength of Real.
In fairness, it is not as if Madrid’s form makes them likely winners. After a disappointing 4-3 defeat to Sevilla at the weekend, then-manager Bernd Schuster spoke the unspeakable:
“We cannot win at Barcelona because they are far superior and I think this will be their year,” he told a shocked press corps. “We can go there and be competitive, but that’s about it.”
The admission, while arguably accurate, effectively ensured that the board fired the German manager. Moving quickly, the club now have two-time UEFA Cup winner Juande Ramos at the helm.
As a result, the team from the capital may well prove to be a different proposition entirely by the time they arrive in Catalonia.
Madrid are by no means on form — goalkeeper Iker Casillas is suffering an error-strewn few weeks, and injuries are preventing a whole host of first team players from getting out on the pitch. But, thanks in part to Schuster’s comments, the pressure is off and nothing will be expected of them.
Such circumstances will make them a dangerous proposition.
So far in his short managerial career, Guardiola has made far more right decisions than wrong ones. If his side do win on Saturday, then he will be lauded as a managerial genius, a hero who masterminded the embarrassment of his club’s historic rivals.
But if Barcelona lose on Sunday, in front of their own fans, then his decision to make changes for the Shakhtar match will undoubtedly be widely criticised — creating the sort of pressure and scrutiny that could undermine what has, so far, been a fantastic season.
When it comes to the Clasico, such is the fine line between hero and zero. On Saturday, Guardiola will find out on which side he falls.