The Barcelona manager, Pep Guardiola, last night labelled Manchester United the best team in the world and joked that he would quit if he completed an already extraordinary season by getting one over on Sir Alex Ferguson to win the Champions League.
Guardiola was just three when Ferguson was cutting his teeth in management at East Stirlingshire. Fergie's long climb to the managerial summit contrasts sharply with Guardiola's meteoric rise.
On Wednesday he can become the first Catalan manager to win the European Cup and his team can become the first Spanish side to do the treble – 12 months ago he was coaching the club's youth team in the third division.
Even Johan Cruyff, who led the so-called "Dream Team" to four leagues and a European Cup, never won the treble, but for a man on the verge of so much history Guardiola was remarkably calm last night, suggesting he would never get into the current Barça side were he still playing and adding: "I am trying to not to put a lot of pressure on the players. We should just travel to Rome, have some nice pasta and be on the pitch for 7.45pm ready for the game to start."
Behind the relaxed grin there was, however, an awareness that he will be leading Barcelona into the biggest game of their history against football's most famous manager.
He said: "This is also the most important match of my life as a coach. Everything has happened so fast. A year ago, I was coach of Barcelona B. Ferguson has been in this business a few years more than me. What he has done is incredible; he has won so much and it is an honour to be able to play a final within a year of becoming a coach and to be able to play against him."
If the game is the biggest of Guardiola's managerial career, it also has huge significance for Leo Messi, who missed Barcelona's last Champions League final against Arsenal in 2006. He said: "This is the most important match of my life. Not being able to play the game against Arsenal was so tough but now I can make up for that. We are aware that we are very close to making history. We have played so well all year and now we have a great chance to make it all worthwhile."
Messi is in the form of his life, having scored 37 goals in all competitions and he claimed Guardiola's influence had been key in his transformation from goal-maker to chance-taker. He said: "I am scoring more goals but that has a lot to do with the way the team is playing and the fact that I am playing much closer to the area. It was the first thing Guardiola said to me in the summer, that I had to get more goals."
Barça's obsession with goals and good football has even led some to suggest that dazzling on the big stage next Wednesday and producing the spectacle of all spectacles will be enough, but Guardiola stopped smiling when it was suggested "just taking part" might be enough.
He said: "I don't share the feeling that it doesn't matter. We are playing against Manchester United – the best team in the world. If you go there thinking, 'it's no big deal', then there is a 100 per cent chance that you're going to lose. Yes, we have had a great season but we want to show the world how well we can play."
Decisions will not be made on the fitness of Thierry Henry and Andres Iniesta until the last moment, with Guardiola admitting that he was running out of options in some areas as the season approaches its climax.
He said: "I haven't gone over what team I might pick too many times, because there are not many players to go over! I don't think I have many options for this weekend either. I don't know if Titi [Henry] will be there or not in the end. According to the doctor, Iniesta and Henry can play, but it depends on how they feel. I know their hearts and heads are telling them they will be fit but, ultimately, it is their muscles that we will have to listen to."
The threat of a team Guardiola consistently referred to as the world's best is not lost on the young coach, whose side have swept all before them this season in Spain, although the competition has at times been somewhat lightweight.
"They have great footballers in all positions," he said. "They know how to play every way – they are good on the break, they are good on the attack, they are good at taking the initiative and ceding it. They can win close games and open ones. We have to try to take the game where we want to take it, but whether we can manage to do that is another matter."
Guardiola has spent most of the season calming the euphoria that has surrounded a record points and goals haul in La Liga for Barcelona. He has often referred to himself as "lucky" as those around him have tipped him to become the greatest manager the club has ever had. But as far as the venue for the final goes fortune has perhaps not smiled on him.
After finishing his career at Barça, he went to Italy where he played for Roma in the Olympic Stadium. "What memories do I have?" he said. "Well, mainly I remember the bench! I didn't play too many games. They were intense years with some good times and some bad times too."
Things were not expected to go as badly for Guardiola as they did in Italy. Just as no one in their wildest dreams – not even the club's president, Joan Laporta, who picked him ahead of the Jose Mourinho at the start of the season – could have imagined things would go so well in his first campaign. Barcelona have been courageous and so far reaped the rewards.
"If we play well it doesn't guarantee success, it just makes it easier," Guardiola said. "We will be brave, we always are."Reuse content