x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Now is the time for Real Madrid to reign in Spain

With Barcelona coach Guardiola leaving his post after the Copa del Rey final, the Madrid club have a chance to build on their success and dominate, writes Andy Mitten.

Barcelona's coach Josep Guardiola and Lionel Messi. JAVIER SORIANO / AFP
Barcelona's coach Josep Guardiola and Lionel Messi. JAVIER SORIANO / AFP

Pep Guardiola wiped away a tear as he concluded his speech on the Camp Nou pitch in front of 88,000 fans who refused to stop singing his name.

"The one who loses is me," he said, his voice strained with emotion after Barcelona's final home game of the season.

"The belt was squeezing me so I took it off. But you can keep the belt on, because all of this continues. I leave you in the best hands. And I'll see you soon because you will never lose me."

Guardiola takes charge of his brilliant Barca side for the last time tonight in the Copa del Rey final against an Athletic Bilbao team managed by Marcelo Bielsa, a man he has long considered a mentor.

The greatest testament to Guardiola's Barca is that they changed football, improved it, with style so dominant, so attacking and attractive that they have been the planet's finest side in each of the last four seasons. They have won 13 trophies, including six in 2009 alone. Rivals Real Madrid won two.

Barca lifted two Champions League titles, but the reigning world champions are now contemplating life without a boss who decided the strain was too much and that he needed a break.

The "best hands" Guardiola referred to are a team with football's finest talents and the world's outstanding player Lionel Messi. They will be led by his assistant Tito Villanova, but the change and Real's continued ascendancy makes Camp Nou a far more nervy place than a year ago. Their former president Joan Laporta, a visionary who is so unpopular with the current regime that his name is unmentionable in Barca media, loudly criticised Barca's board for Guardiola's exit. Laporta, who turned politician after leaving Camp Nou in 2010, described the decision to appoint Villanova as a "panic having not done more to keep Guardiola".

"Barca are in a change of cycle and Guardiola dared not try because he didn't have enough support from the board," he told an audience eager to understand why Guardiola will depart.

Laporta's comments touched a nerve with Barca fans because they could be true. Spanish football is obsessed by such cycles and Barca's greatest fear is that Guardiola's team are truly on the wane.

Guardiola was bold and brave when he took charge four years ago. He inherited a declining side but let Ronaldinho and Deco go and then Samuel Eto'o leave a year later. Will Villanova, an anonymous tracksuit by Guardiola's suited side for five years - apart from a large tract of this season when he had a throat tumour removed - be as bold?

Few doubt his ability as a coach, but does the 42-year-old private Catalan have the personality to lead Barca in public, to engage in inevitable media spats with Real's Jose Mourinho and deal with enemies even within his own ranks? Does he have the charisma to transmit Guardiola's legendary electricity and inspired words in the dressing room before the biggest matches?

Villanova has been privy to more of Guardiola's thoughts and actions than anyone, but will he attempt to replicate his master's tried and tested formula or tweak it and be his own man next season? He is an unknown quantity, but Guardiola thinks he has what it takes and the fans hope he is right.

The likelihood is that Villanova will be judged after six months. If the team are playing well and at the top he will continue, if not he will be pushed aside by a president who needs to guarantee his own popularity ahead of elections.

Villanova will be tested by the ego of Daniel Alves and the off the field indiscretions of Gerard Pique, challenged too by several ageing players. Carles Puyol is 34, Xavi is 33 in January and Abidal 33 in July, yet he will benefit from having an improving Thiago Alcantara and David Villa returning from injury for next season.

If Barca have a weakness, then it is a dependency on Messi. Villa can bridge the gap between the 67-goal top scorer Messi - and that astonishing figure doesn't include tonight's final - and the second placed men Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez who managed 14.

In contrast, Real had three players who scored more than 25 goals: Cristiano Ronaldo on 59, Karim Benzema on 31 and Gonzalo Higuain on 26.

Villanova will have a limited transfer budget to bring in new talent, but Barca's success is judged squarely by how they do against Real. Despite being reigning world champions, European and Spanish Super Cup holders with a chance to lift to Copa del Rey tonight, this season is viewed as failure because they did not win the league or the Champions League.

If Barca are coming to the end of their boom years, they have to rebuild while facing the strongest Real squad in years, a side who were ruthless last season in exploiting every chance Barca gave them. When the Catalans surprisingly dropped points, Real never faltered and extended their lead. That, more than anything, showed their championship mettle.

Madrilenos felt more emboldened this week after Mourinho signed a contract which will tie him to the club until 2016. Mourinho and his players are content to bask in the glory of dislodging Barca from the seat of Spanish football power, knowing that their side needs very little changing.

Mourinho's biggest issue is keeping Higuain who publicly became frustrated at being a second choice striker. With no shortage of suitors, Higuain has intimated that he's leaving, despite 80,000 fans singing: "The Bernabeu is your home, don't leave." Forget the emotion, money is the real issue. Higuain is on €3 million (Dh13.9m) a year at the Bernabeu. Not only does he know that's a fraction of what the other strikers get, but that he could earn twice as much elsewhere.

Ronaldo remains Real's key game changer, the man vital to retaining the league and delivering a much vaunted 10th European Cup to the Bernabeu.

He believes that "there has been a change in the cycle" in Spanish football.

"We've waited a long time for the change, but now we are better than Barca as we have demonstrated," said Real's ever modest top scorer, who this week marked himself 10/10 for his contribution in white. He gave his team 9/10, with a 10 only attainable if Real win what's known as "the 10th" in the Spanish capital.

For now, they're happy to celebrate a 32nd league title and think about another European Cup when the Champions League resumes in September.

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