Eidur Gudjohnsen: 'Barça have huge stars, but the key man is Guardiola'

Eidur Gudjohnsen watched the Spanish manager plot victory over United in the 2009 final – and he hopes his former team-mates can do it again on Saturday, he tells Sam Wallace

Sam Wallace
Thursday 27 October 2011 16:47

When Eidur Gudjohnsen thinks back to the build-up to Barcelona's Champions League final victory over Manchester United in 2009 there is one memory that dominates. It is of Pep Guardiola, the rookie Barcelona coach, telling his players repeatedly in the days and weeks before the game that he knew exactly how to beat Sir Alex Ferguson's team.

"I just remember what Guardiola said to us again and again," Gudjohnsen says. "He went through it all and said, 'Listen boys, this is how we are going to win the final'. Then he set up the team and convinced us, just put it in our mindset that we were going to win it. And that was it. It turned out almost exactly how he said it would."

In Rome that year, Gudjohnsen watched from the Barcelona bench as his team-mates survived an opening salvo from United in the first 20 minutes and then, from Samuel Eto'o's opening goal, went on to dominate the game and win the final. It was Guardiola's first season and his team had inflicted on Ferguson, then coming up to his 23rd anniversary as United manager, his first-ever defeat in a European final.

On Saturday, Gudjohnsen, back in the Premier League with Fulham and hoping to sign a permanent deal this summer, will be an interested observer again and his former side again take on United in the Champions League final. He joined Barcelona from Chelsea in 2006 but it was not until his final season at the club, 2008-2009, that under Guardiola this current Barcelona team became the force that they are today.

It was Guardiola who had persuaded Gudjohnsen, now 32, to stay for another season. Sitting on the couch of a smart west London hotel that was his temporary home until the end of this season, Gudjohnsen is glad that he did. It gave him a unique insight into the phenomenon that is modern Barcelona, not to mention a place in a treble-winning team. Guardiola, he says, has a knowledge of football unlike any other manager he has played for.

"In 2009, he [Guardiola] told us before the game where United would leave space and how we were going to make the most of that space in our position play and where we were going to keep the ball. It was sort of what we had done all season but those few days before the final he exaggerated it a bit more in the team shape – where we were going to find a lot of space to cause problems.

"In that particular game what he [Guardiola] did was push Eto'o on the right wing, Thierry Henry on the left wing as high as they could to keep United's full-backs occupied. He used Lionel Messi as a striker but he was just floating in and out, which meant the United centre halves never really got close. With Messi dropping off that created an extra man to keep possession. Eto'o and Henry had the pace to get in behind United. It was very difficult to mark."

Sounds simple? The memory of that final in Rome hurts Ferguson so much that for the past two years he has point-blank refused to discuss the game. At Wembley on Saturday he will be determined that the young manager in the opposing technical area, 29 years his junior, will not do the same again. Gudjohnsen, who played in the last two years of the Frank Rijkaard regime, says that people miss the point about this Barcelona team: yes, they have huge stars, but no one is more important that Guardiola.

"From the first day Guardiola walked through the door [as manager in the summer of 2008] he started talking about [the final in] Rome. He would say, 'We're going to Rome, we are going to do this, we are going to work hard because at the end of the season we are going to Rome'. He just drilled this into our minds all day.

"He said, 'By the end of the season we are going to go to Rome when we are champions and that is where we finish off our season. This is when we work hard, this is where we prepare and every step and every game is preparing to finish our season in Rome'. And it turned out that way."

Gudjohnsen does not regard Barcelona as unbeatable – far from it – and he takes issue with the assertion that this is not a great United side. Watching them beat his former club Chelsea on 8 May he was struck by the thought that the criticism of United has been "too harsh" this season. But when he is asked which United players would get into the current Barcelona team there is a long contemplative pause for thought.

"I am sure he [Guardiola] would love to have had a left-back over the last few months because of Eric Abidal's illness," Gudjohnsen says. "At one point all his left-backs were injured. I have been the biggest fan of Paul Scholes and I am sure that Scholes at his best could play in the Barcelona team. I think Ryan Giggs at his best could easily play for Barcelona. Wayne Rooney at his best could play for Barcelona but whether they could fit him into their system I am not sure.

"I just think that in every position Barcelona have a player who just works. I don't think Sergio Busquets is the best defensive midfielder in the world but for Barcelona he is the perfect player because of the way he plays. I can also name a few Barcelona players who wouldn't get into the United team because it is a different culture and style of play."

As one of only a handful of players who have worked under Guardiola and Jose Mourinho – Eto'o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are others – Gudjohnsen is unwilling to say which would be better suited to the task of managing United when the time comes for Ferguson to walk away. "Difficult question, very difficult," he says. "There is not much in it between the two." But he has no doubt that Guardiola could hack it at Old Trafford.

"He could because he knows his football, his training sessions are fantastic and he could earn – or should already have – the respect of the United players when he walks through the door. He can be a very demanding manager as well. In that sense he is very complete as a manager and a person. To be able to take over United? I don't know how other people see it, but I can't see United without Alex Ferguson."

As for the star performer in the Barcelona firmament, Gudjohnsen knows that he will be able to say for the rest of his life that he was a team-mate of Messi. He was on the pitch when the Argentinian scored his famous Maradona-style goal against Getafe in the Spanish cup in 2007, dribbling from the halfway line. Later, when Gudjohnsen watched the footage again he saw his own reaction. "I didn't realise at the time what I did. I just put my hands to my head. I was thinking, 'Oh my God, what have I just seen?'"

So how do United deal with Messi? "There is no stopping him," Gudjohnsen says bluntly. "Physically he is immaculate – as in very strong. People don't realise how strong he is. Low centre of gravity. Really quick. And he is so honest, the amount of times people go for him or try to bring him down and he stays on his feet until the absolute last moment.

"The fact that he is so in love with the game – this is what makes him the player and the person he is. People like how natural and authentic he is. He turns up in his tracksuit every day, he is not into the whole fashion thing. He is just the best player in the world and that's it. If he walked in here now – and you didn't follow football – you would say, 'Oh, there's a young guy in his tracksuit'."

The experience of playing for Barcelona is an intense one for any player, Gudjohnsen says, but for Messi it is a level above that. He cannot walk around the city and when he does go out it is with his family in the town he lives in outside Barcelona. He has the odd drink to celebrate but the picture that Gudjohnsen painted of his old team-mate was one of a man who is more likely to spend the evening on his PlayStation rather than in the VIP area of a nightclub.

That said, Gudjohnsen said he had never seen a celebration like the one that followed their 2009 Champions League triumph. "We had an open-top bus tour for about four hours and the whole city was on the streets. I think there were over one million people out. When we reached the stadium it was full – 100,000 people just to celebrate with us. That's what you call a celebration. Some players have a drink, some don't. Some are religious and they don't drink alcohol. But we all celebrated in our own way."

As a former Barcelona player – not to mention his Chelsea allegiance – there is no doubt who Gudjohnsen wants to win on Saturday although he can see a way that United might win the game. "If United don't get caught out early doors and don't get too frustrated giving away possession to Barcelona – and use the possession they have very well – yeah, they can definitely win." But as they did in 2009, he suspects that Barcelona believe their name is on this trophy.

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