A sensational four-goal performance from Lionel Messi ensured Pep Guardiola received a dream send off at the Camp Nou, as the winningest coach in FC Barcelona history paid an emotional farewell to the fans in a dominate 4-0 victory over city-rivals Espanyol.
A massive banner covering nearly one-fifth of the stadium was unfurled before kickoff, reading: “T’estimem Pep” (We love you Pep) in adoration of the revered Catalan leader. With 13 titles in just four years at the helm, Guardiola’s reign has truly been glorious. The Barca boss helped usher in the most successful era of the blaugrana’s storied history, while revolutionizing the way the game is played. Under Pep, Barcelona became a style and a belief, a true embodiment of the club motto: “mes que un club.” After all his accomplishments he will take his leave, holding the immense distinction of having shaped arguably the greatest club side in football history.
Would that it last forever, but fate ordains that dearest friends must part. And on Saturday night, in front of a sell-out crowd of 90,000 plus, the Camp Nou looked on with biting admiration, as Guardiola’s golden incarnation of football played its last home symphony.
Leo Messi was magnificent again, as the Argentine scored a quartet of goals to carry the blaugrana to a well-deserved victory. The little conductor netted his 50th La Liga goal of the season with his final strike, bringing his tally to an unprecedented 72 goals in all competitions this season. With a five-goal advantage over Cristiano Ronaldo and just one league match remaining, the Pichichi and European Golden Boot honors seem all but assured for Barcelona’s number 10, as Messi continues to pad his stats in what will unquestionably go down as the greatest single-season performance by any player in football history.
With conflicting emotions swirling through the stadium, it took the Catalans a bit of time to settle into the match. A nervy atmosphere and makeshift lineup from the hosts lead to a choppy opening ten minutes before Messi stepped up and put Barcelona ahead with their first shot of the game. After being fouled outside the area, La Pulga unleashed a stunning 25-yard free kick, bending his shot over the wall and curling past Cristian Alvarez’s fingers before settling in the upper-right corner of the net.
Joan Verdu tried his luck for the visitors three minutes later from a similar position, but lacked the magic touch, as his free kick drifted inches wide of Jose Manuel Pinto’s far-post.
Seydou Keita should have made it 2-0 on 29 minutes, as the Malian collected Messi’s slide-rule pass in the area and tried to round the keeper, only for Alvarez to go to ground and make a saving touch on the ball just as the Barca midfielder looked poised to score.
Alvarez was called upon again to deny Andres Iniesta at the stroke of halftime, as the Spain international curled a brilliant free kick to the far-post, which the Espanyol shot-stopper somehow kept out with an athletic diving save.
Barca started the second half on the front foot with the inspiring Iniesta firing wide in front of goal before referee Teixeira Vitienes awarded the hosts a penalty kick on 63 minutes for a handball on Cristian Gomez.
The substitute was harshly punished by match official Vitienes for accidently handling the ball in the area, as Messi attempted to scoop a pass over Gomez’s head from close range. Despite Espanyol’s protests, Vitienes was unmoved and Messi the Merciless showed no sympathy, burying the spot-kick off the inside of the right-post and into the back of the net for the 2-0 advantage.
Vladimir Weiss, Espanyol’s most active player on the night, was then denied a sure goal on the other end thanks to the relentless hustle of Javier Mascherano. A poor decision by Pinto to charge off his line saw the Slovakian blessed with an open goal, only for Mascherano to throw his body in front of the net and flick the shot over the bar with a glancing header to preserve the shutout.
From the resulting corner came Messi’s hat trick, as Thiago cleared the ball to Pedro on the right wing and the Canary Islander played a wonderful cross-field pass to Leo on the left. The Argentine took a sumptuous first touch to play the ball out of the air and put himself in on goal before firing a shot under the glove of Alvarez and into the side right netting for his third of the night.
La Pulga would round out the scoring in the 79th minute when Teixeira Vitienes adjudged Sergio Busquets to have been tripped in the area by Juan Forlin and awarded another spot-kick. It was a 50-50 call and a little home-cooking officiating for the hosts, but Messi did not care, stepping up to blast his shot past Alvarez for his record-setting 50th La Liga goal of the season and 72nd in all competitions.
A touching celebration followed, with ringmaster Lionel leading the entire Barcelona squad over to the bench to embrace Guardiola in a massive group hug, thanking the Barca boss for the titles, the memories, and in Messi’s case, for allowing him to become the player he is today.
The little magician could have had a fifth, but fired wide of the near-post under the pressure of Hector Moreno and the onrushing Cristian Alvarez, as Barcelona ended the evening 4-0 conquerors on a night that clearly belonged to Josep Guardiola.
As a thank you for his immeasurable contributions, boundless dedication and incorruptible love for Barcelona and Catalonia as a whole, the fans in attendance made certain to express their gratitude, echoing his name throughout the stadium in sweeping cheers, eventually forcing the timid idol to emerge from the bench and acknowledge the support with some emotional words of appreciation.
“Life has given me this present. For five years I have been able to have you close to me and enjoy the great show that these boys have given us. I’ve been no different than you – I’ve been equally privileged. A little closer to the pitch maybe, but I’ll take this privilege with me. You can’t imagine the happiness and pleasure I’ll take with me.”
“Thank you to absolutely everybody, especially those who have been closest to me…and thank you to those of you in the crowd, who have never failed to make me feel your support”.
“You should know that I will miss you. I’m the person who is losing most, but I am leaving you in the best possible hands – particularly of this group of players. The pressure was strong and I needed to ease up a bit, but you don’t need to do that – stay with us, because this still has a long way to go. I wish you all the best of luck – I’ll see you soon and you will never lose me!”
As they say, we only part to meet again. True to character, Guardiola’s final party was alive with the captivating emotion he embodied during his tenure and a fiery hope for the future.
Over the years, Guardiola’s greatest quality has been the integrity with which he has represented Barcelona. The man has served as a true ambassador for the sport, earning the admiration of colleagues and adversaries alike with his positive approach to the game and deep respect for those who make it their trade.
Douglas Adams once wrote: “To give real service you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money, and that is sincerity and integrity.”
An emphasis on attacking football, playing the beautiful game and winning with in-house players will be his legacy. Beyond that, the sincerity and purity of his intentions are what make his success complete. His decision to leave stems not from the search for a greater paycheck, nor to appease his ego and strive for greater challenges, but rather a belief that anything less than 100% commitment would be unfair to the players and fans who make Barcelona the institution that it is. His undying loyalty to Barcelona has inspired a whole new generation of supporters. It is the quality that has converted him into such an endearing figure for the Camp Nou faithful and the principle reason to appreciate his success.
No mercenary-coach could ever treat the club with as much dignity and humility as Guardiola has. He brought heart to a team in need of direction and helped will them to greatness. The brilliance of his actions will continue to shine long after the sun has set on the Barcelona Empire.
Above all, he managed the team with class. Pure class. Can anyone think of a classier way to go out? Has any manager in history ever left a team to such a sweeping ovation from the fans? Most managers share the unpleasant fate of being shown the back door, exiting alone down a dark tunnel, berated by venomous insults and crushing guilt, feeling they let their players down. Guardiola never need fear this.
Jorge Valdano, former sporting director of Real Madrid, came out today and praised the Barcelona manager for his attitude, stating: “Guardiola believes football is a territory where greatness is possible. He never cheats, is always brave and strips football of all its miseries. It’s of mediocre (people) not to praise Barcelona.”
This coming just days after Mourinho’s public interview with Spanish newspaper ABC, in which the current Real Madrid boss took time off his busy schedule to take an umpteenth dig at Guardiola and Barcelona, while hailing his own accomplishments in the last decade.
It reminds me of a quote I once read on the nature of having class and showing grace: “Class never runs scared. It is sure-footed and confident, and it can handle whatever comes along. Class never makes excuses. It takes its lumps and learns from mistakes. Class knows that good manners are nothing more than a series of small sacrifices and minor inconveniences. Class is real. You can’t fake it. Class never tries to build itself up by tearing others down. Class is already up and need not attempt to look better by making others look worse. Class can walk with kings and keep its virtue and talk with crowds and keep the common touch. If you have class, you’ve got it made. If you don’t have class, no matter what else you have, it won’t make up for it.”
Barcelona may have lost their hegemony as three-time defending champions, but their honor is in tact. No man can question the success of Guardiola without exposing his own insecurities, for while form is temporary and defeat inevitable, class is forever. It is the truest measure of a man’s greatness and despite the constant blathering and slanderous ravings of Jose Mourinho y la caverna mediatica, Josep Guardiola, in every moment and in every action, has shown the humility and grace of a true champion.
13 titles are not won through deception, but rather hard work and accountability. With the Copa del Rey final against Bilbao representing a potential 14th trophy and Guardiola’s last match, it is hard to envision Barcelona falling short in the final. The players will want to give him a heroes exit. One final victory dance in the center of the pitch and one last chorus of “campeones” to send him off. He deserves nothing less than to exit on the shoulders of his disciples, with the trophy raised high, fading away into the tunnel and off into the sunset, a true champion.
So, what more is there to say? It all went by so fast. Pleasure and action make the hours seem short and words alone will never be enough to recapture it all. It’s been a privilege, Mister. You are the greatest man any of us will ever know. On behalf of the fans, who watched with such wonderment and delight as you lead the charge of this great campaign, in honor of all you have done and the pride you have inspired in us all: Thank you, Pep. You’ll never be forgotten.
Article written by Barcaloco contributor Anson Woodring. Follow Anson on Twitter at @ansonwoodring.