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Old rivalry is set to reignite

Like-minded Pep and Mauricio have history from Catalan days

By Jack Pitt-Brooke

Published 01/10/2016

Mauricio Pochettino
Mauricio Pochettino

It was December 2010 when a 38-year-old Mauricio Pochettino said: "I am not the anti-Guardiola." He was desperately trying to manage expectations.

His Espanyol team were about to host Pep Guardiola's Barcelona. Pochettino had won one, drawn one and lost one in La Liga against Guardiola so far and was expected to get another result this time. "In football the players are the protagonists, not the coaches," he insisted.

Barcelona proved Pochettino's point for him. Espanyol worked ferociously hard, as any Pochettino team does. And Guardiola's Barcelona dismantled them 5-1.

This was just three weeks after Barca beat Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid 5-0. They were playing some of the best football ever played, halfway through a season which ended with the La Liga and Champions League titles. Guardiola called it "the most complicated game" of Barcelona's season so far, and it was.

Some coaches thought that the way to play Guardiola's Barcelona was to park the bus. They saw Mourinho's Inter Milan scraping past in that famous Champions League semi-final second leg, six months before. But not Pochettino. He wanted to fight fire with fire.

That is how he had got results against Barcelona in the past. So he had his head held high afterwards, despite being humiliated. "The team was true to our philosophy, and we tried with all our strength," Pochettino said. "But Barcelona are in a state of grace, close to touching perfection."

That was the fifth of nine meetings between Guardiola and Pochettino when they were coaching the two clubs of Barcelona. They had parallel spells in their first senior jobs: Guardiola arrived six months before Pochettino, they both lasted four years, Pochettino was sacked six months after Guardiola's exhausted resignation.

Their last meeting was Guardiola's last home game at the Nou Camp, an emotional 4-0 triumph. More than four years on, they meet again at White Hart Lane tomorrow, managing Tottenham and Manchester City respectively.

Their careers have followed different paths. Pochettino is still aiming for his first major trophy, Guardiola has won 21. But what was true when they started their careers is still true now: they have markedly similar philosophies of football, with shared influences and shared characteristics on the pitch.

Both like their teams to dominate possession, to build from the back, to take the initiative and to create chances. Both like their teams to defend high up the pitch, to press high, winning the ball back within three seconds, protecting against the counter-attack. Both are obsessive perfectionists and workaholics who demand the same professionalism and application from their players.

What is so interesting is how Pochettino and Guardiola arrived at the same conception of the game at the same time, at the same age, in the same city, but from two different angles. Pochettino owes it all to Marcelo Bielsa, the man who discovered him in the dead of night, aged 15, while trying to recruit youngsters for Newell's Old Boys.

Pochettino won titles for Bielsa's Newell's, before playing for him again at Espanyol and then for Argentina.

Guardiola never got to play under Bielsa, and it is one of the few regrets of his career. Back in 2006, a 35-year-old Guardiola had just finished playing for another hero of his, Juan Manuel Lillo, at Dorados Sinaloa in Mexico. So he made the pilgrimage down to Argentina to meet Bielsa and learn from his ideas. Within a year he was in charge of Barcelona B.

When Guardiola and Pochettino stepped into coaching, they both did so with philosophies and methods that were almost fully-formed. Pochettino took over at Espanyol with the club, where he was a hero as a player, in crisis. He was appointed on the same day in January 2009 that Barack Obama was inaugurated as US president.

At Pochettino's first game, a 0-0 draw with Guardiola's Barcelona in the Copa del Rey, Espanyol fans brought "Yes we can" banners. In the second leg, Barcelona won 3-2.

What struck everyone most at Espanyol was how this novice knew exactly what he wanted.

The Espanyol players instantly learned what Pochettino wanted from them. In February, they travelled to the Nou Camp. Barcelona were 10 points clear at the top of the table. The Spanish press said that they would be "fighting King Kong with a teaspoon".

"All the people said 'Espanyol is dead, they have no chance'", Pochettino later recalled. "For 27 years, Espanyol had never won the derby away."

Pochettino's plan was to attack Barcelona with a style close to their own. "Barcelona were top, and the plan was to press high and to surprise them," Pochettino said. "They were surprised how we played. We won 2-1, a very special victory." Barcelona went on to win the treble, but Espanyol stayed up.

That was a vindication for Pochettino's football, for taking the fight to their celebrated rivals, meeting Barcelona's pressing with some pressing of their own. He never beat them again, but he earned Guardiola's respect.

In December 2009, Barcelona scraped a 1-0 win over Espanyol, thanks to a fortunate penalty. For the return fixture at the Estadi Cornella-El Prat, Espanyol battled their way to a famous 0-0 draw, in which Dani Alves was sent off. Pochettino's football was described as "guerrilla warfare", for their energy and aggression.

This was the context for Pochettino having to deny that he was the "anti-Guardiola" before the December 2010 meeting. Despite that heavy defeat, Pochettino's team could still cause Barcelona problems. Espanyol lost 2-0 at the Nou Camp in May 2011, just before the Champions League final triumph at Wembley, and there is no shame in that.

In their final season as rivals, Espanyol earned a 1-1 draw at home, days after Barcelona had won the 2011 Club World Cup. Their last game was that 4-0 farewell to Guardiola. Of course Guardiola has a superior record, with four wins from seven league meetings. But Pochettino is proud of the fact he coached inferior players towards a similar style of play.

That, ultimately, is why Guardiola has won so much more than Pochettino. The Argentinian is still waiting to reach those same heights.

Premier League fixtures: Today (3pm unless stated): Swansea v Liverpool (12:30pm), Hull v Chelsea, Sunderland v West Brom, Watford v Bournemouth, West Ham v Middlesborough, Tomorrow: Man Utd v Stoke (12noon), Leicester v Southampton (2:15pm), Tottenham v Man City (2:15pm), Burnley v Arsenal (4:30pm)..

Belfast Telegraph

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