Enrique has hostile reception in mind for old friend, finds Richard Fitzpatrick
THE most distinctive aspect of Luis Enrique’s persona is his voice. It’s like the rustling of sandpaper. When he speaks, he sounds like a guy who’s just walked off the set of a Sam Peckinpah western.
When he spoke about the draw for this week’s Champions League semi-finals, in which Bayern Munich travel to the Camp Nou to face Barcelona on Wednesday, he spoke with pity about the team’s opposing manager. It was the worst possible fixture for him, he said.
This opposing coach is different.
He’s Pep Guardiola, and he will return to Barcelona as the coach of an opposition team for the first time since leaving in 2012 after an unprecedented haul of 14 trophies in four seasons. His battle of wits with Enrique is the encounter’s fascinating subplot.
The pair have known each other for more than 20 years. They were on Spain’s gold-medal winning football team at the Barcelona ’92 Olympics, and, when Enrique left Real Madrid in 1996, it was Barça he joined, teaming up with Guardiola.
Enrique signed for the club in the car park at Barajas airport on the outskirts of Madrid. It was an inauspicious start to a successful eight-year playing career at the Camp Nou.
He is still despised in the Spanish capital as one of only a handful of marquee players to cross the great divide to play for Barça.
When Guardiola took over as first-team coach of Barça in 2008, Enrique replaced him as coach of Barça B. The appointment came only a few months after Enrique had finished the Marathon des Sables in the Sahara desert, the world’s most god-awful foot race, which is the equivalent of running six marathons in six days.
The competitive, ascetic streak that runs through them both is noticeable. Guardiola gets so wound up during the day of a match that he won’t eat. He spends the day glugging bottle after bottle of water, and then gorges a huge midnight meal afterwards, which typically might consist of a salad, pasta, a bowl of potatoes, half a dozen Nürnberg sausages and a sirloin steak.
Diet may well be one of the keys to Barça’s rampant form this season. Charly Rexach, one of Barça’s directors, said in a Catalan radio interview in March that “[Lionel] Messi ate more pizzas than he should have last year”.
The Argentine has rarely looked so sharp, having shrugged off the sluggishness of last season, which Barça went without winning any silverware for the first time since the Guardiola era. He’s scored 40 goals in 35 La Liga games this season to date.
Critics belittle Enrique, suggesting Barça is “Messi’s team coached by Enrique”, that the little man rules the roost. They had a public spat in January after Enrique left Messi out of the starting XI in a defeat to David Moyes’ side, Real Sociedad.
Since then, though, Enrique has had the team humming. His rotation policy in the first half of the season, in which he only used the same starting XI for the first time in late January, has paid dividends. He’s adjusted Guardiola’s possession-based style to include quick transitions when necessary, and particularly the long ball to Luis Suárez, as in the case of his winner against Real Madrid in the Clásico in March.
Enrique’s great achievement this season has been his ability to gel Suárez, Messi and Neymar Jr up front. The trio have already surpassed the 100 goals scored by Messi, Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry in Guardiola’s 2008-09 treble-winning season.
Guardiola announced he was leaving Barcelona in April 2012. It was two days after being dumped out of the Champions League semi-final by an infamous rear-guard action by Chelsea over two legs. He was a spent man. He’d been using tablets to help sleep at night.
Guardiola’s mentor, Johan Cruyff, coined a phrase, el entorno, for the environment that engulfs Barça’s managers – the mix of malign forces, including fans, press and the hierarchy that runs the club. Guardiola got the job from Barcelona’s most successful president, Joan Laporta, who stepped down from the post in 2010 to pursue a career in politics.
Sandro Rosell, a one-time friend-turned-enemy of Laporta, took over the presidency. He did little to support Guardiola politically, who he derogatorily referred to as “the Dalai Lama”, particularly in Guardiola’s battles with José Mourinho during the Portuguese manager’s abrasive, three-year stint at Real Madrid.
Guardiola has said privately that he knew the end was coming for him at Barcelona when Rosell persuaded the club’s general assembly of members to take a legal action against Laporta for allegedly doctoring the club’s accounts. A judge dismissed the case in October 2014.
Enrique, too, is at the mercy of political forces beyond his control at the club. Rosell, ironically, had to resign in January 2014 over irregularities in the signing of Neymar Jr from Santos, chiefly a hole in the accounts of approximately £25 million. His replacement, Josep Maria Bartomeu, has called an early presidential election this summer.
If, as anticipated, Laporta – whose career as a Catalan separatist politician foundered – puts his hat in the ring against him, it is unlikely Laporta will include Enrique on his election ticket. He will want his own man.
Guardiola also comes to the Camp Nou under pressure. He has marched easily to two Bundesliga titles but he knows ultimately his time in Bavaria will be judged on how he fares in Europe. His two predecessors reached three Champions League finals in four seasons, including one victory in 2013.
Guardiola has last year’s ignominious semi-final 5-0 aggregate defeat to Real Madrid – which included a 4-0 home loss – on his report card, and he has lost Arjen Robben, the team’s most dangerous player, for the rest of the season while striker Robert Lewandowski suffered a broken nose, a broken jaw and concussion in last week’s clash against Borussia Dortmund.
Guardiola could do without having to face Enrique’s free-scoring Barça next up.