A circus will descend upon the visiting dugout at Camp Nou on Wednesday night. Frenzied photographers will snap away as Bayern Munich boss Josep Guardiola takes his seat as the opposition manager at his spiritual home. In fact, the circus began a week-and-a-half ago, when the draw for this week’s UEFA Champions League semifinals was made. And when Guardiola, presumably clad in a sleek suit from the Serra Claret clothing boutique owned by his wife’s family, emerges from the tunnel, the soccer world will be watching.
But Guardiola is not the only giant at the circus; nor will he be the only man in a suit. Sat meters away from the Catalan coach will be an Asturian coach, Luis Enrique. Barelona’s boss, who will casually top his ensemble off with a pair of trainers, has largely been swallowed up in the Guardiola Returns Home hysteria, though that won’t surprise Enrique. Guardiola has become the benchmark against which all Barcelona managers are measured, so knocking his side out of the Champions League in the last four, despite the pair’s friendship, would leave a particularly sweet taste in Enrique’s mouth.
It would also keep Barça’s desires to win its fifth European Cup intact — and it’s not just the Champions League it has designs on. Under Lucho — a nickname he stole from Mexican midfielder Luis Flores — La Blaugrana sits at the top of La Liga with just three games to go, and it has a cup final to come against Athletic Club at the end of May. Beating Bayern on top of that would be absolute gluttony.
If a three-trophy season sounds rather grand, it’s because it is, in fact, grand. But for some reason, nagging doubts and rain clouds still follow Enrique around.
One of the reasons is the large shadow which will extend from that away bench. Guardiola didn’t just help Barcelona achieve success; he helped it achieve success The Barcelona Way. Winning is important, but how you win matters just as much. Style and aesthetics are vital: José Mourinho is held up as the Antichrist, while Guardiola and Johan Cruyff are revered as deities.
Some admittedly quieting complaints have been that Enrique’s slightest of detours away from Barcelona’s core style leaves him walking a trapeze, one wrong move away from falling off. That’s a strange charge, though, given Barça’s play has still provoked squeals of excitement at times this season. Anyone unable to enjoy some of the acts put on by Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez is either a Real Madrid fan or a grump.
It’s not like Barça has completely sacrificed possession in favor of their swashbuckling South American trio, either. The team’s approach might not feel like it is smothering rivals to death, as it did in Guardiola’s day, but it’s certainly not willingly letting the opposition have the ball. It had over 60 percent of the possession at the Etihad Stadium and at the Parc des Princes in the last two rounds. Against Madrid in both Clásicos this season, Lucho’s team monopolized the ball. Enrique’s show is far from a three-man one: Ivan Rakitić, Andrés Iniesta and Co. have contributed from midfield, as well.
Enrique has also extracted the best from his defenders. Gerard Piqué’s clash with the law and dip in form now looks on course for a happy ending thanks to the way the Barcelona coach has steered the center back. Barça has only leaked 19 goals in the league. Last season, it conceded 33, and the season before that 40.
Meanwhile, at the very back, it’s hardly been noticed that Víctor Valdés, the club’s most successful ever goalkeeper, left the club last summer, such has been the smoothness of the transition to Claudio Bravo and Marc-André ter Stegen. Lucho deserves a certificate for his part in all of this, even if it is trophies which will ultimately see him graded.
It should be easier for those connected to Barcelona to give him credit than it has been. In a heroic act of fearlessness, he swapped Madrid for Barça as a player before beginning his coaching career with Barça B when Guardiola was still the first team’s leader. He helped the team come third in La Segunda and took Guardiola’s old job last summer after triggering a season of exciting football and a ninth placed finish with Celta Vigo. (What happened in Rome, during Lucho’s single season at AS Roma, can stay in Rome.) Here was an appointment which, on some levels, drew parallels with a fresh faced Pep taking on the job in 2008, even if Enrique isn’t as Barcelona as Guardiola is. Few are.
He ticked a lot of the boxes a Barça coach needs. However, it’s the boxes he hasn’t ticked which mean Luis Enrique could win the treble this season without earning complete satisfaction.
That’s because even when you ditch the style debate, some people (fans, media and players) find him hard to work out and harder to like. You get very little from his gruff voice in his press conferences. Any question which may open the door to an entertaining response is likely to get knocked back, the door slamming in the journalist’s face.
But journalists shouldn’t take it too personally, as it has been the same with the players. The world knows about the Messi fallout in January, which the clumsy Jeremy Mathieu confirmed to us, while Neymar’s reaction to coming off in Seville was frosty at best last month. Yet Luis Enrique, following advice from the team’s captains, has been able to keep things in order. January’s crisis has been forgotten, and Barça has been insatiable since the day his rift with Messi peaked in San Sebastián, winning 26 of 28 games.
Local press suggest the storm of Anoeta led to Enrique loosening his rules, slightly. If that’s true he should be complimented for realizing that maybe his strictness wasn’t the best way forward. There have even been smiles, and the odd jokey comment in recent press appearances (even if he’s still guarding his top secret information). He might not be the world’s most unlikeable man after all.
He is a focused, demanding character, as shown by his playing days, his marathons, his iron man events and the taxing bike rides he enjoys with Juan Carlos Unzué and others through the Catalan mountains on days off. Likeable or not, Enrique is not an idiot, and it looks like he might be getting the hang of his new job.
With his contract up next summer and his answers to questions about his future typically illusive, few really know where Enrique will be in August. There is also the small matter of a presidential election in July, and that often leads to managerial changes at Spanish clubs.
We know exactly where he is right now, though, and he knows exactly what he has to do: beat Bayern Munich. Do that and he might go some way to shedding the Guardiola ghost which still haunts Barcelona’s Ciudad Deportiva Joan Gamper. Maybe then the cameras will be flashing in Lucho’s direction.