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Nov 14, 2012

Taking a gamble on Guardiola

From the moment Pep Guardiola joined the massed ranks of the unemployed last summer, his lingering shadow was always likely to haunt under-pressure managers across Europe - and we may not have to wait long to discover whether the hype gathering around him is entirely justified.

After Guardiola's agent, Jose Maria Orobitg, giddily revealed last week that his client is considering "offers" from Chelsea and Manchester City, the rumour mill has started to rotate with increasing fury as one of the most decorated tacticians in football prepares to make his return to the game.

As the mastermind behind a Barcelona dream team hailed by many as the greatest club side the game has ever produced, Guardiola boasts a CV that would put all but a handful of his rivals in the shade, and yet the evidence that his magic touch can be transported to another employer is a little thin on the ground.

There are those who believe Guardiola will never be anything more than a great Barcelona coach, a man whose status as a Catalonian deity meant that success with the club and players he loves meant he simply couldn't fail - it was a never-to-be-repeated one-off.

Right place, right time, his cynics would argue, and it is hard to dispel the theory that any coach would have achieved plenty with a Barcelona side blessed with the talents of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Those seduced by his dazzling superstar status neglect the reality that he may, possibly, be a one-trick pony.

Questioning the abilities of a coach with such a momentous record of success may seem a little churlish, with his success in turning around the troubled Barcelona team he inherited from Frank Rijkaard back in 2008 and inspiring an historic transformation an achievement never to be forgotten.

That said, Guardiola was always among those eager to heap all the praise onto the heroes doing his talking for him on the pitch. "People don't come to look at the coach - they come to look at the players," Guardiola said last year. "In the end this game belongs to the athletes, the players. I am merely here to find out information about the opponents and devise ways to hurt them. In the end, we won so much simply because we were better than the rest. Great players win matches and trophies."

With Barcelona rising high atop the Spanish league despite some less than convincing performances under new boss Tito Vilanova, Guardiola's former sidekick and eventual successor is doing his best to confirm the belief that it is harder to fail with this team than it is to achieve glory.

The Barca ethos that was put in place decades ago was merely massaged by Guardiola during his time in charge and, if Pep now lands a prize job in the Premier League or Serie A, he would be tested like never before.

We don't know how he would cope with a chairman like Roman Abramovich at Chelsea pushing his buttons behind the scenes, or how he would adapt to life in an English top flight that has far more strength in depth than La Liga, yet one of the men he may yet replace has little doubt that he would be a success.

"I was surprised to see Guardiola walk away from Barcelona, but he deserves immense credit for the achievements he created," Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said. "I have great admiration for him. Yes, he had great players at Barcelona, but we have seen that does not necessarily mean you have a great team.

"It seemed to me as if he made the decision to leave Barcelona just at a moment when he had some big disappointments, losing to Chelsea in the Champions League and losing the Spanish title to Real Madrid. At moments like this, it is maybe not the right moment to make a decision like this, but I believe he is one of the symbols of the Barcelona triumph. Maybe he could have taken a year off and come back at Barcelona, but I'm sure he will come back somewhere else and do well."

So where will Guardiola end up? Abramovich has long craved his presence at Stamford Bridge, with the delay in handing Roberto Di Matteo a two-year coaching contract last summer believed by many to be due to his desire to snare his first-choice target. An initial meeting between Chelsea and Guardiola's advisers is rumoured to have taken place as long ago as last February in Paris, but not even a mind-blowing contract on offer could seal the deal last summer as Abramovich was forced to wait for his man.

Manchester City remain an option for Guardiola and, while AC Milan are also keen to bring him to the San Siro, the word from sources close to the exiled coach suggests a Premier League move would be his preferred choice, with London even identified as his ideal destination.

Guardiola followed the orders of his wife, Cristina, by taking time away from the game to spend time with his three young children, enjoying the sights of New York and distancing himself from the game that threatened his health last season, but he may be tempted back sooner rather than later if the offer was right.

"I don't know when I will manage again, but being in charge of Barcelona over four years was like an eternity," he admitted as he left the Camp Nou amid a torrent of tears last May. "I need to take time away to refuel. That is the honest truth. When I return to football, it is important that I do so with a refreshed mind, having taken the right amount of time away from the game. This is why I don't talk about meetings with Chelsea or any other club because my time off is all I am thinking about."

A primary factor behind Guardiola's 'burn-out' at Barcelona was the unshakable passion he has for the club, his desire to influence all areas of an institution that has long been a part of his DNA. When Barca revelled in a moment of glory, Pep felt their joy like few others. Likewise, defeats were impossible for him to bear.

Those same raw emotions would not be tugging at his heart strings when he is offered the chance to sell his wares elsewhere, yet his appointment would have to be viewed as something of a gamble for clubs whose demand for instant success has proved too much for a host of high-profile coaching luminaries down the years.

Guardiola may be the next in line to try his luck at Chelsea or Manchester City, but a coach who has barely experienced a fully blown crisis or had to deal with the unique demands of proving his worth without the assistance of the halo that constantly hovered above him at Barcelona would be no easy task.

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