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Barcelona 2008-09: The lasting legacy of Guardiola and Messi's masterpiece

Pep Guardiola - cropped

London, May 27: Manchester United battered Barcelona for nine minutes, with Cristiano Ronaldo roving maniacally in apparent pursuit of some sort of Champions League final shots record.

It was time for Pep Guardiola to again make the switch that helped to destroy Real Madrid earlier that month: Lionel Messi inside to false nine – a long forgotten position his exquisite Barca team and mercurial forward were beginning to revive.

Samuel Eto'o shuffled from centre-forward to the right of the front three and duly opened the scoring. Messi belied his diminutive stature to net a wonderful second-half header and Barcelona unseated reigning European kings United 2-0, adding the most satisfying part of a historic 2008-09 treble.

Ten years on, the ripples from that captivating night at Rome's Stadio Olimpico can still be felt across modern football. For the outstanding coach and player of their generation, it was the night it became clear everything was possible.

Messi unleashed

The season that earned Messi the first of his five Ballons d'Or was undoubtedly a watershed moment in his career.

Prior to Guardiola's arrival the Argentinian kid with a fondness for pizza and fizzy drinks had suffered frequent injury problems. The 2008-09 campaign was the first where he appeared in more than 30 LaLiga matches.

It was also the first time he broke through 20 top-flight goals. Only twice in the intervening years has he failed to net more than 30.

Messi's game, as with all true greats, has continued to evolve. While he was the most dazzling cog in Guardiola's whirring 2008-09 machine, he now carries Barca on his slight shoulders to a greater degree than ever before.

It feels like heresy to suggest Messi might have become simply the latest "next Diego Maradona", a shimmering talent waylaid by injury and expectation. But that was a possibility 10 years ago.

The Champions League final against United coming hot on the heels of him inspiring a 6-2 routing of Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu demonstrated he was so much more. That he did it within Guardiola's intricate team structure was perhaps the most compelling element.

Messi looked like a superstar entirely at odds with the Galactico age. In that sense he was completely in tune with his coach.

Winning Romanticism

Guardiola's swift salvage job at Barcelona after success had turned to excess under Frank Rijkaard, primarily through giving a tranche of outstanding youngsters their head, is a well-worn tale.

However, the wider footballing landscape in which he prevailed was just as important in establishing the meticulous Catalan as this decade's foremost tactical influencer.

This was the age of 4-2-3-1 – power, pace, pragmatism and confirmation of an accepted basic truth. Flair and invention would always capture the imagination and maybe even win occasionally, but organisational and solidity were the foundation of major titles.

Bolt on a superstar signing or two in an era of ever-spiralling transfer fees and you satisfied both factions, or at least tried to. Real Madrid's "Zidanes y Pavones" model of combining hard-working local players with global superstar yielded mixed results.

The difference with Guardiola's La Masia graduates was his "Pavones" – the label given life by unremarkable Madrid defender Francisco Pavon, the unassuming face of the other side of the Galactico coin – included Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, players every bit as good as Zinedine Zidane.

Guardiola updated Johan Cruyff's Barcelona vision of slick passing and positional play with some of his own influences – namely tactical fundamentalists such as Marcelo Bielsa, Juan Manuel Lillo and Ricardo La Volpe, men romantically attached to their principles of how the game should be played, seemingly at the expense of major honours. Guardiola winning because of, and not despite, those virtues was revelatory.

It captured the imagination of fans everywhere, including some men with very deep pockets.

Petrol and ideas

Fast forward to Manchester City's domestic treble this season and the reaction in some quarters to Guardiola's latest masterpiece has been very different. He is the darling of the romantics no more.

Critics have expressed distaste that City's back-to-back Premier League points hauls of 100 and 98 come fuelled by an Abu Dhabi fortune, fearing their dominance to be a demonstration of a game broken beyond repair. This aspect of coverage seems to have troubled Guardiola, whose commitment to playing the "right" way – as Cruyff would see it – has always projected an element of football moralism.

Big finance and big success have long been easy bedfellows but the focus of City's spending – leaving aside its sources and any outcome of ongoing investigations – is significantly different because Guardiola was always their priority signing. His system suitably fitted out guaranteed success in a way that simply punting on the latest superstars would not.

Arsene Wenger's observation of City having "petrol and ideas" remains pertinent and the influence of the methods European football first fell for in Rome are easy to spot far beyond Manchester.

Bayern Munich, steeped in their own historically successful style, grabbed a piece of the action as Guardiola led them to three consecutive Bundesliga titles between 2013-14 and 2015-16. When he left Germany's top flight, his nearest rival was Borussia Dortmund's Thomas Tuchel. A disciple of the positional style, Tuchel is now trying to bring ideological focus to Paris Saint-Germain's own petrol.

Back at Barcelona, Gerard Pique this week dismissed suggestions that a dispiriting end to the season is in part down to a turn away from Guardiola's style.

The Champions League final will be contested by Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool and Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham – coaches who have come closer than most to finding the Guardiola antidote, but who similarly demonstrate the prime importance of a high-tempo, hard-working collective. Like Guardiola, they are the single most important people at their clubs. Real Madrid's mooted €500m spending spree on the biggest names looks a strangely dated approach by comparison.

Such cycles invariably come to an end, but for the foreseeable future football's course remains set by the magic Messi and his colleagues weaved so irresistibly 10 years ago.

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Story first published: Monday, May 27, 2019, 12:30 [IST]
Other articles published on May 27, 2019
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