Luis Enrique goes 'home' to Gijon as Barcelona extend their unbeaten run
"I hope it goes on for 100 games but if the run has to end anywhere, let it be there," Luis Enrique said on Tuesday.
"There" was the Molinon, Spain's oldest football stadium, located in northern Spain where the river Piles meets the Atlantic in Gijon, Asturias. "There" was also home for the Barcelona manager.
Unbeaten in 30 games, the best run in the club's 117-year history, Barca face Sporting in a game that had been held over from Week 16 because of the Club World Cup. It was an opportunity to extend the run and move six points clear of Atletico Madrid, seven clear of Real Madrid.
An obligation, in fact: Most had mentally totted up the points already. But Luis Enrique hadn't; he knew this wouldn't be easy. He'd seen it from the other side. In 1990-91, Sporting beat Barca 1-0 and he scored the goal.
He was 20 then -- the kid who had warmed up for his debut by doing laps of the treatment table in the dressing room -- and playing his first season at the Molinon. It was also his last, but it remained his club. He had since played there as an opposing player and then, on Wednesday, aged 45, he returned for the first time as a coach. When he walked into his pre-match press conference on Tuesday, he began by smiling: "Puxa Sporting! Puxa Gijon!" Up Sporting! Up Gijon!
"I consider myself 1000 percent sportinguista, from the cradle to the grave," Luis Enrique said. "I'm from Gijon; it is my home. I used to go to the Molinon with a Sporting flag my mum had sewn and go and stand with the fans... in the noisiest bit, by the way."
That last line won't have surprised anyone, least of all Sporting's manager Abelardo Fernandez. He and Luis Enrique have known each other since they were six; they were raised on the same street, Calle Bierzo; they went to the same school, Elisburu, where Abelardo says they were "similar students: similarly bad"; and they joined the same futbol sala team, Xeitosa, taken to play together by their parents -- Luis Enrique's dad was a lorry driver and Abelardo's was a carpenter.
"I put myself in my parents' position and imagine what they would think," Abelardo said this week as the two men prepared for a first meeting as rival coaches.
"They took us to games when we were tiny." Luis Enrique said. "Abelardo is very important in my life: we have been together since we were very young kids. And I don't remember us ever fighting."
They've travelled a long way together. They got the chance to go to Mareo, Sporting's youth system, aged 11 and, although they didn't last long, they got a second chance later on. Three years they spent together at Sporting, one of them in the first team. They then played together at Barcelona between 1996 and 2002. They were even teammates for Spain -- Abelardo got 45 caps, Luis Enrique 62 -- playing together at the 1994 and 1998 World Cups and winning an Olympic gold, in Barcelona, in 1992.
Carlos Garcia Cuervo was the man who signed them for Sporting. He also ran the local hardware store near their homes in the neighbourhood of Pumarin and claims that he signed up Luis Enrique, despite him being on the verge of going to local rivals Real Oviedo. He says that, when Luis Enrique's mum told him in his shop one day, he responded: "That can't be". As for Abelardo, he was about to join local lower league side Caudal. This week Garcia Cuervo told El Mundo: "The pair of them would train like bastards and then go to the bar together."
Abelardo admits that he "wouldn't necessarily have bet on" the pair becoming coaches, even though he began doing his qualifications while they were still at Barcelona together.
"I had my coaching badge at 27, 28. I wasn't really thinking 'I will be a coach', it was more a 'just in case'", he said. "Later on you start to thinking about that."
He and Luis Enrique are different personalities; Abelardo is more laid back, while Luis Enrique, he says, was always stubborn: "When he fixes an objective, he does not let up."
Now here they were facing each other on Wednesday, their very different worlds coming together -- "Barcelona are in a different galaxy," Abelardo said. Two friends: One who rescued Sporting, not just from another season in the second division, but a fate far worse; and the other who led Barcelona to a treble last season and now wants to lead them to another.
Faced with an economic crisis, without an entirely unexpected promotion under Abelardo last season -- a miracle, really -- Sporting might not even have survived at all. It seemed more likely that they would get relegated from the second division than promoted from to the first and even if they had not, an administrative relegation was a genuine possibility. Promotion allowed them to service a debt that strangled them.
"If we hadn't got promoted we could be playing at Las Callejas [home of Asturian side CD Lealtad in the regionalised second division B], rather than the Bernabeu," Abelardo said.
Sporting wouldn't be playing Barcelona, that's for sure, and Abelardo wouldn't be facing Luis Enrique. "I'm proud to have a friend who has been so successful and is the best coach in the world right now."
Sporting's fans were proud too. Some waited outside the team hotel, and at the Molinon Luis Enrique was given a warm welcome. There was warmth from him, too, more than normal: He was actually nice, some Catalan journalists grumbled. He stopped to sign autographs and pose for photos with fans. After the game, he posed with Abelardo, holding up a frame that certified them as ambassadors for Gijon, European city of sport 2016.
Jose Maria Brito, who had been the pair's coach at Xeitosa, watched the game from the directors' Box while Luis and Nely, Luis Enrique's parents, were in the stands. So was his brother Felipe, who is a policeman in Gijon. And when the Barcelona manager reached the bench, Abelardo was waiting for him.
"I'm not a sentimental type and I come back to Gijon every summer," Luis Enrique said. "But it was nice to see my friends; it's always pleasure to come back to Molinon."
And as for Barcelona's unbeaten run, well, it didn't end there as two goals from Lionel Messi -- including his 300th in La Liga -- and another from Luis Suarez secured a 3-1 win.
For Sporting, defeat means they are two points above the relegation zone. "I'm sure they'll survive," Luis Enrique said.
He certainly hopes so.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.