As Xavi Hernandez prepares to take charge of Barcelona for the first time, his former midfield partner, manager and mentor is reflecting on his own special moment. “I remember I was nervous, I was anxious but I was confident,” Pep Guardiola tells Sky Sports,
He remembers the score too. “We lost.” A 1-0 defeat to Numancia that soon had people whispering about whether the rookie coach was up to the job. “The days after were not easy. At the big clubs, the expectations are always so high. It was a good lesson.”
Guardiola can smile now. That season ended in Champions League glory in Rome. If he could go back and give one piece of advice to the Guardiola of 2008, what would it be? “I would do it quite similar,” he says. But perhaps he would tell himself to worry a little less.
“I am a better manager now than I was then. I am more experienced. I know the game better. I know the opponents better. I know the way you have to attack and defend. But if I had not got better it would be a disaster, honestly. I was 37 and now I am 50. You learn.”
When he started out in management, Guardiola would be elated when things went well. “I was in heaven after every win.” But darkness would engulf him on those rare occasions when things went wrong. “When we lost it was, ‘Oh no, I am not able to do this.'”
Time has taught him to treat the two imposters just the same. “I am a little more relaxed now,” he explains. “Experience gives you that. I do my best and if it works, great. If not, we are going to try again. Winning depends on so many things that you cannot control.”
Speaking inside the media room at Manchester City’s training ground, Guardiola looks refreshed and is boasting a tan that has not been picked up in these parts. But he has returned from vacation to receive an untimely reminder of those factors beyond his control.
Jack Grealish and Phil Foden picked up injuries on international duty with England. Kevin De Bruyne has tested positive for Covid-19. It is a challenge in what could prove a decisive phase of the season. Manchester City play 10 Premier League games in 42 days.
It is a test of his more philosophical approach but if he is concerned then there are no signs of it. “I am more than happy with the way we are playing. We have shown huge personality home and away.” City go into the weekend in second, three points behind leaders Chelsea.
“The season is so long. You think, ‘Oh my god,’ but there are many games to play, a thousand million points still to win. As bad as it looks when you drop points and think, ‘Oh no, it is over, we are not going to do it,’ the day after you wake up and think, ‘Let’s try again.’
“I remember we started last season and after seven or eight games, all the pundits were saying we were not even contenders. Zero chance. Look what happened. We won the Premier League three games before the end. So I do not know what is going to happen.”
What happened last season is City embarked on a sequence of 21 consecutive wins in all competitions over the winter, a relentless run of form that all but secured the title. With the international distractions over, is this when the City machine cranks up again?
“It is about focusing on the present. Staying in the present is one of the key reasons why teams succeed. The rest I cannot tell you. I would love to say we are going to win 15 games. I don’t know. When we won the first of those 21 in a row, I could not have imagined it.
“Maybe we will lose 21 games?”
There is a familiar twinkle in his eye that suggests he does not think for one moment this will be the case. But he knows the title race is on. The draw with Southampton. That defeat to Crystal Palace. The season is long but these slips could prove costly.
“Right now, in the Premier League, if you make more mistakes than normal it will be too late. We know it. The competitiveness is huge. Chelsea are going to drop a few points. Liverpool as well. The teams are so good and they are improving. Every game is so demanding.”
The next game is against Everton at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. In keeping with that mantra about focusing on the present, Guardiola gives off the impression that, while he has cherished his family time, in another sense, Rafa Benitez joined him on the trip.
He is certainly in his thoughts now.
“I am imagining what they are going to do. I am analyzing them. I am not spending one single second thinking about anything but Everton. All I am thinking about is that they play four at the back but will they play five at the back , maybe? Who are they going to play?
“I know Rafa but I do not know what he is going to do. I am not a magician. I did not speak with Rafa last night and ask him what he is going to do. But the last experience we had when he was with Newcastle, it was always tight, always difficult.
“He is a master at defending well, defending together and being patient to wait for the right moment. He got a result at Old Trafford so we know it will be tough. We will have to be patient, not make mistakes, wait for the right moment, and be courageous in attack.”
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What will he tell his own players?
“Don’t make mistakes. They are waiting for that. Don’t allow them set-pieces because they are strong. At the same time, be patient without being lazy or slow. They are waiting to punish us but we have to do our game. We have to be aggressive.
“We cannot lose control. The most important thing is not to think that after 10 minutes we are going to be winning 3-0. Maybe we can win 1-0 after scoring on 75 minutes. If we have control, that is OK. Don’t be too anxious. This type of game, they want you to lose your calm and after that they can punish you.”
It is a lesson Pep Guardiola has been learning from the start of his managerial career. That game against Numancia? Twenty-six shots, 70 per cent possession and twice denied by the frame of the goal. Beaten on the counter-attack. You win or you learn.
Will he be watching Barcelona against Espanyol on Saturday evening? The response is swift. “Yes, definitely. One hundred per cent.” He pauses, perhaps keen to underline he is a more relaxed figure these days. “With a glass of red wine,” he adds.