Manchester City will provide a much-need test for Barcelona when they meet in the Champions League
A Different League: There has been an antagonism deficit since Jose Mourinho left Spain
Wednesday 18 December 2013
The reaction in the Barcelona dressing room as they watched the Champions League draw on Monday was mixed. There were muted groans from some at having drawn the strongest possible rival; and shouts of joy from others who had just won the €1,800 (£1,525) pot in the €50-a-head sweepstakes organised by Gerard Pique.
Neymar and Carles Puyol were among those who correctly predicted that Barça would draw Manchester City. You can even imagine the competitive nature of both leading them not only to predict it, but want it. There is a feeling that this will wake up Barcelona's season. "Better now than in the quarter-finals," said coach Gerardo Martino. His players have barely been tested this season and there has also been an antagonism deficit since Jose Mourinho left Spain in the summer. Now Barça have a rival worth worrying about on the horizon.
A rival whose architects are well known to them. When I asked a Barça supporter after Monday's draw whether he would prefer Manchester City executives Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano still running his club, or current sporting director and president Andoni Zubizarreta and Sandro Rosell, he hardly let me finish the question. "Obviously Txiki," was the reply.
Supporters hankering for a recent past when they ruled the world see part of that past now laying the foundations for Manchester City's future. Begiristain is the man Johan Cruyff so often refers to as "the smartest kid in the class". His former Spain and Barça team-mate Zubizarreta is one of the game's gentleman, loyal to his colleagues and gracious to all. But he so often seems a step behind Begiristain. That was even the case in Nyon on Monday when the draw was made and Zubizarreta was still in a taxi on his way to Uefa headquarters.
Airport delays meant he had to change flights and was texted en route with the news that Barça had drawn City. "I thought you were too scared to show," joked Begiristain when he arrived.
Begiristain also got in ahead of Zubizarreta with the signing of Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini. Zubizarreta wanted the then-Malaga coach to take over at the Nou Camp but the sensitive nature of Tito Vilanova's departure and Zubizarreta's loyalty to him meant City had agreed terms before Barça could react.
But the game will not be settled in the boardroom or at the directors' lunches that president Rosell and City chief executive Soriano may well choose to swerve in view of the charges of "fraudulent administration and spying" levelled at Soriano by Rosell earlier this year over the former's time as vice-president at Barcelona.
The tie will conclude at the Nou Camp, where Barcelona have won every game this season, and with Lionel Messi a month back into playing after his recuperation.
The last time Barcelona hosted City was in 2009, with the English side winning 1-0 in the traditional Gamper Trophy pre-season friendly. I asked the first question in the post-match press conference to then-manager Mark Hughes and was given short shrift for diving in with a transfer enquiry instead of congratulating him on the result. It was impolite on my part but also revealed something about the way City thought four years ago – wanting plaudits for a half-paced pre-season win.
Now they are on Barcelona's level in the Champions League last 16. It is just the idea that they are favourites that seems a step too far. A combined XI would probably still give Barça the edge. A line-up of Valdes, Zabaleta, Kompany, Pique, Alba, Touré, Busquets, Neymar, Messi, Iniesta and Aguero favours the Catalans 7-4.
But as was pointed out, had it not been for Pellegrini's maths this could easily have been Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich against Barcelona. And that really would have been an unwanted brush with the past.
Ancelotti cherishes Butragueno's wrong picture
You can tell a lot about someone by the photographs they keep at work. While writing Fear and Loathing in La Liga Sid Lowe encountered a life-size Jose Mourinho in Mourinho's office – him gallivanting at the Nou Camp having reached the Champions League final at Barça's expense in 2010. Carlo Ancelotti opened house to some Italian journalists last week and they found a picture of Emilio Butragueno and a Milan player taking pride of place.
Asked for the story behind the snap Ancelotti explained that Butragueno had given him the photo when he arrived at Real Madrid believing it to be of himself playing against Ancelotti. "It isn't me in the photo," Carlo said, "It's [Alessandro] Costacurta, but Emilio is a lovely guy so I keep it on my desk anyway."
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