Football Friends Online – When 90 Mins Is Not EnoughGuardiola gets date with Bielsa in Del Rey final - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough Guardiola gets date with Bielsa in Del Rey final - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough

Guardiola gets date with Bielsa in Del Rey final

It was another passing week in football where many things surprised, but not the fact that on Wednesday, the Barcelona behemoth managed to reach another final as their splendid emulation of the Harlem Globetrotters goes on. A 2-0 victory over Valencia in the Nou Camp saw the Catalans to the final of the Copa Del Rey in which they will face, in a match-up of true romanticism when you factor in the curious innocence of Pep Guardiola, Athletic Bilbao, managed by the madly methodical Marcelo Bielsa.

Guardiola is a well- known admirer of Bielsa, a fact he is re-iterated on numerous occasions and has accredited the Argentinean of being a major influence on the Spaniard’s footballing ideology, a glowing appraisal as any when it is attached to the wondrous football produced by Barcelona under the former midfielder and the numerous trophies they have vacuumed up whilst never as far as being tempted to deviate away from their sumptuous style. Yet, the Bilbao coach remains something of an idol to Guardiola and it is fitting that the two shall meet in the showpiece event at the end of May.

It became apparent of the immense respect aimed in the way of Bielsa by Guardiola when the Barcelona boss spoke his rival’s teams being “different and unique” ahead of a meeting between the two back in November which concluded in a 2-2 draw, a match which Bilbao were within a minute of winning before the genius of Lionel Messi breached any lasting resistance. Bielsa achieved a point by typically instructing his players to press hard and high, tracking adversaries across the pitch to forbid the Catalans from playing their natural game, something that Barcelona are themselves masters of and something Guardiola has harnessed from Bielsa. “I have never met a team so intense”, said Guardiola after that thorough examination in the Basque country.

The point gained that night in the San Mames left Athletic Bilbao in 9th place following a slow start to the season in which they failed to win their first 5 matches. Fast forward 3 months from that rainy November night and Bilbao have only lost two in ten matches as they have risen to 6th, also with a shot of cup glory after disposing of Mirandes by an aggregate score-line of 8-3 on Tuesday evening, with Fernando Llorente hitting two goals in the second leg, taking his tally for the season up to 16, a record of 9 in 10 games since the turn of 2012. A 4-1 reversal away at rampant runaway leaders Real Madrid is the only anomaly in an eight game spell which has seen them rise to within 2 points of fourth place Levante and a run that has far belied the worry that encapsulated such a slow start to the season for the Basque club.

The most transient explanation into the sluggish set from the blocks was the appointment of Bielsa himself. Former coach Joaquin Caparros guided Bilbao into sixth and Europa League qualification after years of flirtation with the drop, but in doing so attracted the negative tag of “direct” and “tough”, but his passing in tandem with a presidential change above, saw a change in the philosophy with the introduction of the Argentinean who had spent the last four years developing his 3-1-3-3 tactical ingenuity in charge of Chile.

With Bilbao ingrained in the 4-4-2 with Llorente as the target-man, the manager’s priority was to resort to a 4-3-3. Javi Martinez, the much sought-after box-to-box midfield player was shifted to centre-back whilst in came Iker Munian and Ander Herrera to provide rampaging support for the superb Llorente. As a result, there was a harder emphasis on pressing higher up the pitch to harass defenders, rather than shy-away from oncoming attacks to stifle opposition with an utilisation of resounding strength from a group of physical players that was found under Caparros.

A change so drastic in nature was inevitably going to be hard to implement in such a short space of time and a respectable Europa League run, in which they qualified from big spending Paris St Germain’s group with relative ease, managed to facilitate any growing pains that might have transcended onto the supporters. With Bielsa, the introverted media-shy recluse of a manager, it was never going to be easy, but slowly and surely, he managed to iron out the imperfections to admirably steer Bilbao, who have assembled a squad with a net spend of just 19 million euros over the past five years and a transfer policy that only centres around players originating from the Basque, on course for a Champions League spot and of course, the final of the Copa Del Rey and another meeting with his apprentice. It is an achievement that is rendered even more impressive when it is considered that is has been done by playing exciting and attractive football that has been almost unrecognisable from the Caparros era of a year ago.

It was documented by David Trueba, a film director and good friend of the Barcelona manager, that Bielsa and Guardiola had met during a barbeque at his house in Rosario. That particular meeting allegedly yielded eleven hours’ worth of discussion surrounding tactics and concepts that has bonded them together in the sport that has grasped them and dragged them both to the point of addiction. According to Trueba, that particular meeting borne the immense mutual respect that the duo now share and are all too enthusiastic to release into the ether. “I am embarrassed about the size of his (Guardiola’s) work” said Bielsa upon first taking the Bilbao job.

But for all the respect and shared admiration that brings these two fascinating, successful characters together, it will all be cast aside for the date at the end of the La Liga season in what promises to be a classic if it bears any passing resemblance to the game back in November. Beating Bielsa will mean so much more to Guardiola than the lifting of yet another trophy.


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