Pep Guardiola is preparing for “something special” when he returns to Barcelona with Manchester City this week.
The 45-year-old may now be in charge at the Etihad Stadium but for many he remains synonymous with Barca and he is sure to be the main focus of attention ahead of Wednesday’s Champions League clash at the Nou Camp.
Guardiola came through the Catalan giants’ famed youth system, became an influential member of their first team – and a Champions League winner – before going on to enjoy even greater success as their manager.
Two more successes in Europe’s elite competition, and three LaLiga titles, were among the 14 trophies he won during a glorious four-year stint that made him the most sought-after coach in world football.
Trips back to the Nou Camp since leaving the post in 2012 are not unheard of. He went back – and was beaten – with Bayern Munich two seasons ago while, as a ‘socio’, he actually has his own seat in the stadium. He was spotted in the crowd when City last played there in 2015, memorably putting his head in his hands in disbelief when Lionel Messi nutmegged James Milner.
Yet such visits are not yet the norm and the esteem in which Guardiola holds the club, and they him, is likely to be very much in evidence from the moment City arrive in Spain.
“I cannot deny that it is something special for me,” Guardiola said after the draw for the group stages, which will also see Barca play in Manchester on November 1, was made.
“I grew up in Catalonia. At 13 years old I went there to play in the Academy and I was promoted to a professional player, the trainer.
“So I spent most of my life there. I know the people there, I know the club, the media, most of the players are still there, so the emotion is there.
“It happened last year with Bayern Munich, and it happened this year, and if I continue coaching at the high level, at the big clubs, and we are lucky to arrive in the Champions League, that is going to happen more times.
“The first time is, ‘Wow, it’s the first time’. The second time is the second time. In the future it will maybe be normal.”
Guardiola, who also won six league titles as a player with Barca, added seven more trophies to his glittering CV during his time at Bayern. It is such success he is now trying to bring to City, whose ascent to the top of the European game is relatively recent with Premier League triumphs in 2012 and 2014 after decades of under-achievement.
Ever since beginning his coaching career with Barcelona B, Guardiola has demanded a lot of his players with a high-intensity game requiring quick pressing and one-touch passing. City took the lessons on board quickly, winning their first 10 games.
Their playing style won many plaudits and bore hallmarks of the slick, all-conquering approach of Barca that Guardiola first absorbed under Johan Cruyff and successfully refined.
There have also been other similarities with his Barcelona reign. When he began at the Nou Camp he made clear established stars such as Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o and Deco had no future at the club. It was controversial but paid off spectacularly. At City Joe Hart and Samir Nasri were among those to be quickly loaned out, while there seems little way back for the spurned Yaya Toure.
Other stories of a firm approach have emerged with the banning of pizza, fruit juice and WiFi in certain parts of the training ground.
So far the results have been impressive, although the failure to win in three games ahead of the trip to Spain may have revealed vulnerabilities. The players seem to have bought into the methods. Kevin De Bruyne has thrived, Sergio Aguero has continued to score and the likes of Raheem Sterling and Aleksandar Kolarov have found a new lease of life.
The ambitions are high and, based on progress so far, justifiably so. A measure of how far they have come, and still have to go, comes at Guardiola’s old stomping ground in midweek.