Familiarity breeds contempt, the old saying goes. That is certainly the case with Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho.
The two tacticians will renew their rivalry in the Manchester derby on Saturday. The stage may be a new one, but the same old script has been dusted off.
Guardiola and Mourinho worked together for four years at Barcelona, when the Catalan was a stylish holding midfielder and the Portuguese a translator and assistant to Bobby Robson. Back then, the relationship was cordial. Both already had designs on a future career in coaching and would draw on the other’s experience to add to their own mental flipcharts.
When Guardiola eventually rose to the first team manager’s job at Barcelona in 2008 after a brief apprenticeship at Barça B, Mourinho was already the hottest coaching property in Europe. The man who called himself a “special one” had led Porto to Champions League glory, restored Chelsea to the top of the English game with the league title after a 50-year hiatus and was embarking on building a team at Inter capable of ending the Nerazzurri’s four-decade estrangement from European glory.
Barça light up Europe
And then Guardiola stole his thunder. Inheriting a side including Leo Messi, Xavi Hernández, and Andrés Iniesta ensured Guardiola would not struggle terribly on the domestic front in his first season but few outside La Masia could have foreseen the new manager’s impact. In the 2007-08 season, Frank Rijkaard’s last in charge at Camp Nou, Barcelona ended up empty-handed. Club stalwarts such as Gianluca Zambrotta, Lilian Thuram, Deco and Ronaldinho left at the end of the campaign. In came a 21-year-old Gerard Piqué from Manchester United, Sergio Busquets from Barça B, and Dani Alves from Sevilla. Guardiola was an untried novice with an idea, the “philosophy” of La Masia, and the raw materials to mould it all together.
Barcelona won the treble in Guardiola’s first season. And they did so playing a brand of football that could have been bottled as an antidote to Mourinho’s pragmatic, win at all costs style. The characters were taking shape: Guardiola the quiet visionary, Mourinho the pantomime villain. But it was never that clear-cut. Both have a reputation for ruthlessness and both have left a supporting cast of disgruntled players at previous clubs.
Mourinho Inter Barça's face
The following season, the simmering rancour came to a head when Barcelona and Inter met in the semi-finals of the Champions League. Mourinho set up his side in two solid blocks to stifle Barça’s attacking verve. Pragmatism won the day and Mourinho could not contain his glee, prancing about the Camp Nou turf with his finger raised in a gesture that needed no translation.
The following season, the scriptwriters excelled themselves. Mourinho arrived at the Bernabéu to break Barcelona’s domestic hegemony under Guardiola. And the Portuguese did so in the only way he knew how: snarling, gouging, complaining about referees, dreaming up conspiracy theories and, above all, driving Guardiola up the wall.
Eventually, Guardiola broke. Before a Champions League semi-final between the sides in 2010-11: "Senor Mourinho has permitted himself the luxury of calling me Pep, so I will call him Jose," Guardiola said. "Which one is your camera, José? All of them, I suppose... Tomorrow at 8.45pm we face each other on the pitch. He has won the battle off the pitch. If he wants his own personal Champions League trophy away from the pitch, let him take it home and enjoy it.”
"In this room, Mourinho is the f***ing chief, the f***ing boss. He knows all about this and I don't want to compete with him in here. I'd just like to remind him that I worked with him for four years [at Barcelona]. He knows me and I know him.”
"If he prefers to value the views of the journalist friends who take their information in a drip feed from Florentino Pérez more than the relationship we had for four years, then, that's his choice. I try to learn from José on the pitch, but I prefer to learn as little as possible from him off the pitch."
Mourinho’s siege mentality had done its job. Barcelona went on to win the Liga title and the Champions League, leaving Mourinho with the consolation of a Copa del Rey victory over the eternal enemy. The following season, Real would finally wrest the league trophy back from Barça and Guardiola and the lauded coach himself would go on to announce he was taking a sabbatical from the game. Three years of exposure to Mourinho had taken its toll.
On Saturday the two antagonists will attempt to achieve the ascendancy in Manchester, the first act of another footballing melodrama starring two of the world’s most tactically astute managers. Cut from the same claret and blue cloth, nurtured at the same seat of learning, Mourinho and Guardiola are a lot more alike than they would care to admit: sometimes it’s easier to shout at the wall than to look in the mirror.
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