Master and apprentice Guardiola and Xavi meet again in Barcelona v Man City friendly

Former teammates at Camp Nou come face-to-face for first time as managers for fundraising game

The then Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola, right, with Xavi Hernandez at Camp Nou in 2009. AP
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When, 14 years ago this week, Pep Guardiola embarked on his first job as a senior coach, he chose his allies carefully.

His goalkeeping coach at Barcelona, a role crucial to Guardiola’s play-from-the-back game plan, was Juan Carlos Unzue. The midfield tactician-in-chief was Xavi.

Guardiola had been a teammate of both, and as a novice manager making some bold decisions about who belonged – and who did not – in his Barca, he wanted sharp minds and trusted figures to bounce ideas off.

Xavi, the relative novice now in Guardiola’s old job at Barca, and his mentor, now the manager of Manchester City, meet as opposing coaches for the first time this evening in a fund-raising friendly match with the much-appreciated Unzue foremost in their thoughts.

Unzue was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, two and half years ago. Camp Nou is expected to be close to capacity to raise money for research into the disease.

The attendance will be swelled by a fascination at the coaches’ head-to-head, as Xavi embarks on his first full season as a coach in Europe, and Guardiola makes only his second appearance in the away team’s dugout at a stadium where, with two European Cups in his first three years, he launched his stellar managerial career.

He will receive a rousing welcome from a Camp Nou in elevated spirits. Barca’s season had its lift-off at the weekend, a 4-1 win at Real Sociedad spreading optimism that heavy spending, funded by the club’s long-term mortgaging of future revenue, has armed Xavi with a formidable side.

Robert Lewandowski, formerly under Guardiola’s watch during the striker’s prolific time at Bayern Munich, scored his first two Barcelona goals at La Reale following his €45 million move from Germany. The prodigy from the club’s academy, Ansu Fati, scored one and brilliantly set up another for Ousmane Dembele.

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On Wednesday, Lewandowski is likely to find himself sharing a pitch with Erling Haaland. The pair this summer left behind them two and half years of sustained duelling for the status of leading centre-forward in the Bundesliga. Since joining City from Borussia Dortmund, the Norwegian has three goals in as many Premier League outings for City.

But the most storied reunion is the two managers, men whose career trajectories coincide so closely. Guardiola, 51, and Xavi, 42, were both born in provincial Catalonia, and enrolled as schoolboys at Barca’s La Masia academy.

Once Guardiola’s 11-year, 263-match era as the tempo-setting midfielder for Barcelona was coming to its close, Xavi had already identified himself as the natural successor. Guardiola had captained the side, and featured in the club’s first European Cup triumph, in 1992.

Xavi’s last appearance in a Barca jersey as a player was in the 2015 Champions League final. As skipper, he lifted the trophy, his fourth European Cup with the club.

Guardiola spent some of his last playing days at Al Ahli in Qatar, the country where Xavi made the shift from footballer to coach at Al Sadd, leaving there last November to answer the call to take over at Barca.

When he did, Guardiola tried to put a brake on the comparisons: “Xavi is not my successor, he has to be himself,” he said.

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But the parallels were compelling. The appointment of Xavi was made by Joan Laporta, recently returned to the Barca presidency for a second mandate. It was Laporta, in his first tenure, who elevated Guardiola from the club’s B team to take charge of the first team in 2008.

Guardiola kept Unzue on as his specialist goalkeeping assistant, but would make some radical changes in his first summer. Ronaldinho and Deco, two figureheads of the dressing room, were told they could leave.

So was Samuel Eto’o, a world-class centre-forward, although Eto’o stayed put and proved important in the dazzling Treble-winning campaign that Guardiola immediately oversaw.

“To be managed by Guardiola was to take a masterclass in coaching,” Xavi remembered of that time. Some of his mentor’s resolve can be glimpsed in the younger coach.

Xavi’s first full season in charge of Barca has already featured a starting line-up that had neither Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, Sergi Roberto or Sergio Busquets – the latter was suspended – in it, the first time that has happened since late 2020.

The long-serving quartet were all teammates of Xavi the player. They have learnt from Xavi the coach that, Busquets apart, there will be no favoured status.

Former Barcelona goalkeeping coach Juan Carlos Unzue, who from suffers amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, with Spain manager Luis Enrique, left, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, second right, and Barca head coach Xavi. EPA
Updated: August 24, 2022, 2:53 AM
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