It felt almost like a family reunion at Barcelona’s Camp Nou as Xavi Hernández and Pep Guardiola faced each other for the first time as managers this week.
Guardiola, a former Barça player and manager, always receives a reverent welcome from the club’s supporters, and Wednesday was no exception as his City side faced the Blaugrana in a charity match.
The two managers embraced each other before and after the match – an amicable energy that spilled into the crowd as excited fans came from all over the world to see the “Xavi versus Pep” debut and watch the European giants in a friendly clash.
Sharing a pitch is nothing new to Guardiola and Xavi, who first played together as teammates in 1998 when Xavi joined Barcelona’s senior squad.
Ten years later, they reunited with Guardiola as head coach on the sidelines and Xavi as captain of Barcelona, and now they enter a new era by assuming the same vantage point, side-by-side but from opposing coaching boxes.
“It’s like old-school Barça meets new-school Barça,” lifelong fan and Barcelona resident Ciprian Adrián told CNN Sport as he looked down at both teams warming up.
“We love Pep after all he’s done for the club and, of course, have always wanted him to come back. But Xavi has been really good for Barcelona.”
Xavi was appointed as Barça manager last year and has overseen an upturn in results, although the start of this season has been overshadowed by the club’s financial problems off the field and a disappointing 0-0 draw against Rayo Vallecano at home.
More than a manager
Xavi and Guardiola made football history together when they curated Barcelona’s “golden era” between 2008 and 2012, including winning the club’s first treble and two Champions League titles under Guardiola’s leadership.
Since his departure, the team has had six full time managers, one interim manager, and faced hardships both on the field and in the boardroom – to the point where many fans were clamoring for Guardiola’s return.
What they got instead in Xavi was an emerging coach with lots of potential to change the club’s fortunes.
The two Catalans grew up playing at Barcelona’s youth academy, La Masía, and adopted the football philosophy established by club icon Johan Cruyff. They each anchored the field as central midfielders, commanding the creative and tactical flow of each game, using possession as the key ingredient for their playing strategy and coaching methodology.
Xavi established himself as one of the best midfielders of all time by combining Barcelona’s tiki-taka style with his own play-making vision and ability to find space on and off the ball.
As a player, he embodied Barcelona’s mes que un club (“more than a club”) ethos, and this week’s charity match is evidence that he has the same priorities as a manager as well.
The proceeds of the match on August 24 went to supporting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – research on behalf of former Barcelona goalkeeper Juan Carlos Unzué, who served as Guardiola’s assistant coach during part of the golden era and was diagnosed with ALS two years ago.
It’s rare for a friendly match to take place just weeks after the start of the European season, but for both Xavi and Guardiola, the cause was near to their hearts and reverberated within the Barcelona family.
Unzué took to the field in his wheelchair, flanked by the starting lineups of both teams, and made an honorary kick-off to a burst of applause and cheers from the crowd and the players.
He spent the match as honorary assistant coach to Xavi and later accompanied Xavi and Guardiola to the post-match press conference, where all three reiterated their support for the fight against ALS.
Pleasing the crowd
The match itself left no fan wanting – a 3-3 draw in which both coaches experimented with their lineups and made more substitutions than fans could keep track of.
City opened the scoring after a goalkeeper error from Iñaki Peña allowed Argentine striker Julián Alvarez to tap the ball into the goal, but Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang quickly equalized with a beautiful, one-touch volley from an interrupted free-kick outside the box.
The rapid scoring continued back and forth, with Barça’s Frenkie de Jong putting the second goal away in the 66th minute, only to have City’s Cole Palmer score four minutes later.
The final goals of the night were from Memphis Depay after an excellent grounded cross from Sergi Roberto, followed by a penalty kick taken in added time by Riyad Mahrez.
The match, though friendly and fun, proved to be competitive enough for the fans.
Anton Rinas is a Barcelona fan and German host of YouTube channel ViscaBarca. He follows the team and covers their matches on his channel and said he thinks Xavi is putting to rest any doubts people had about him joining as head coach too soon.
“Xavi said he learned almost everything from Pep, and Pep said he’s super convinced that Xavi will be a great coach,” Rinas told CNN Sport.
Looking into the future, Rinas remarked that the two coaches know each other so well that it’s guaranteed to be an amazing duel every time their sides face each other.
While this friendly was the perfect warm up for what’s going to be an exciting future watching the two managers go head-to-head, Rinas shared the sentiments of many fans about the ultimate goal.
“This match is nice, but I hope we face each other in the Champions League,” he said.