x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

High hopes of Spain style and substance from new Al Jazira coach Luis Milla

The Spaniard has an impressive CV and, with contemporaries such as Guardiola and Laudrup, the stage is set for him to take the club to greater heights.

As coach of the Spanish Under 23 team at the London Olympics last year, Luis Milla, centre, took forward the attacking style of the senior side. David Moir / Reuters
As coach of the Spanish Under 23 team at the London Olympics last year, Luis Milla, centre, took forward the attacking style of the senior side. David Moir / Reuters

In his first season in charge of Barcelona in 1988, Johan Cruyff initiated what would prove to be an exciting era for the club and for Spanish football.

Cruyff built his team around a small number of star signings such as Hristo Stoichkov, Michael Laudrup and Ronald Koeman.

He also promoted home-grown players, such as the 22-year-old Luis Milla, who played in what would become known as the "Pep Guardiola role" in a defensive midfield position.

Milla, the 46 year old recently appointed as the coach of Al Jazira, would play this key role in a team of mainly Spanish players supplemented by superstars.

"He was a very similar player to Guardiola, similar in stature too," said Barca fan Esteve Sala, 78, a season-ticket holder of 50 years.

"He was better in the air than Guardiola, I can recall him scoring a great headed goal for the B team and thinking 'who's that?'"

Cruyff would take three seasons before his Dream Team had been crafted, but they won the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1989, the Spanish Cup a year later.

Along the way, Cruyff fell out with Milla, not the first time the autocratic Dutchman had argued with players, as Gary Lineker, Laudrup, Andoni Zubizarreta and Stoichkov would testify.

Cruyff claimed Milla had asked for too much money, fans claimed the coach was buying and selling far too many players.

Milla, from Teruel, an ancient town equidistant between Barcelona and Madrid, was not short of suitors, especially as he was out of contract and free of charge.

Real Madrid came straight in for him. Their Barca hating president Ramon Mendoza took great delight in parading their new acquisition and he spent seven years at the Bernabeu where he twice won the league and also tasted domestic cup success.

To replace Milla, Barcelona's president suggested the Danish playmaker Jan Molby. Cruyff was nonplussed, he had seen the future and suggested a youth team graduate, Pep Guardiola.

Barca's No 4 would be eternally grateful and said: "Cruyff believed I could do it and gave me the opportunity. I think there are a lot of players who miss out because they are not given the chance. I owe it to Cruyff."

Had Milla not departed, Guardiola's future, which saw him pick up 16 trophies as a player, before he enjoyed his successful tenure on the touchline there, may well have been very different.

Both Milla and Guardiola would later have success as coaches, using a philosophy of working with and developing youth. Their teams remained true to Barca's attack-minded approach.

Milla was good enough to play over 300 games between Barca, Madrid and Valencia, plus he was capped three times by Spain in 2000.

His style was not as suited to Madrid as it was to the Barca way in which he was schooled and there is a feeling in Spain that he would have had a better career had he stayed in Catalonia, but he still achieved far more than most professional footballers.

After playing his last game for Valencia in 2001 - a year before they won the league, he built on his excellent CV by turning to coaching, starting with youngsters and rising until he was Getafe's assistant under his former Barca teammate Laudrup in their successful 2007/08 season.

Getafe reached the quarter-finals of the Uefa Cup where they met Bayern Munich, drawing 1-1 away and leading at home before going out on away goals after extra time.

"Laudrup and Milla were excellent for Getafe," said Cosmin Contra, one of the men who played under them at Getafe.

"They were motivated and encouraged the type of football they'd played together. People said they couldn't do that at a small club like Getafe, but they took the club further than ever before. I'd played in the Alaves team which reached the 2001 final and there was similar excitement. We also reached the Copa del Rey final."

As Laudrup accepted a big contract with Spartak Moscow in 2008, Milla was appointed coach of Spain's Under 19s.

He then took charge of their Under 20, Under 21 and the 2012 London Olympics Under 23 sides. In 2011, he led the Under 21 side to success in the European championships, with players such as Tiago Alcantara and David de Gea. He also had Valencia's Juan Mata and Athletic Bilbao's Javi Martinez in the senior squad which lifted the 2010 World Cup.

Spain's Under 21s were superb defensively and conceded just two goals in five matches. Milla's team mimicked the dominating style of the senior side; their 59 per cent possession against England was the lowest in their five matches and illustrated why the future of Spanish football at international level appears so healthy.

Milla's excellent and growing reputation persuaded Al Jazira to appoint him as their first Spanish coach, and the Abu Dhabi side will hope to see some of the stylish play that he developed with Spain's youngsters as they continue their pursuit of Al Ain at the top of the Pro League table.

sports@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE