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Sport is a strange creature at times. It intermingles, interweaves, and, ultimately, lets you draw your own conclusions about destiny or coincidence. Take, for instance this man: he is from the northern reaches of Euskadi, more commonly known in English as Basque Country, and began his managing career at the age of 16. He rose quickly through the ranks to become the youngest ever first division manager in Spain at the age of 29 and then, ever-so-quickly became a journeyman manager, taking the occasional break to do broadcasting. He even ended up in Mexico for a year before returning to Spain. Take, then, this man: he is from the eastern coast of Spain, where he joined his hometown club, was spotted a man named Johan Cruyff, turned into one of the greatest midfielders in history, and became a hero to an entire region. His time at the club wound down quickly and he too became a journeyman of sorts, moving to Italy and Qatar before retiring.
And then, of course, the coincidence. Or perhaps the destiny. Man one, who we shall call Juan Manuel Lillo, arrives in Mexico and finds himself looking for a midfielder. Man two, who we shall call Pep Guardiola, is hanging up his shoes, but seems amenable to the approach of an old first-division nemesis. The two link up, plans are drawn up, and Guardiola joins Dorados de Sinaloa for six months. But, Lillo resigns in disgust at, it appears, everything from the club to the officiating*; Guardiola sticks with the team until they’re relegated from the Mexican Primera and then he calls it a day, permanently retiring and dedicating himself to becoming a manager. Lillo, of course, has already been a manager for two decades and nothing will stop him from being one, if he’s given enough time.
Guardiola rises quickly once again, becoming Barça B manager and then jumping to the top of the food chain and becoming head of the first team in 2008. After another small break, Juanma Lillo joins Real Sociedad in the Segunda at nearly the same time. He fails to gain promotion while Guardiola wins the treble and then three more trophies. Another short break ensues for Lillo, while Guardiola piles on the victories and hours in the office with Barça. Then, of course, comes their reconnection. Hugo Sanchez is let go at Almería and Lillo finds himself with a job again. Only this time he’s staring down the double barreled shotgun of the relegation zone inches from his face. He backs off quickly, putting space–9pts– between the club and the drop, but there is always March 6 looming and it is now: Barça come to town.
Forgive me for the wordy introduction, but at times these histories overtake me. You’ll see what I mean again in a minute. It is these connections that I find so intriguing about sports: James Naismith invents the game of basketball; he teaches Forrest Allen how to play it and “Phog” becomes a coach; Allen in turn coaches Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith, starting them on their coaching careers, and then Allen recruits a gangly kid from Philadelphia named Wilt Chamberlain; two of Smith’s assistants are Larry Brown and Roy Williams; Brown, then, has two assistants named John Calipari and Bill Self. I am fascinated with these things. If you just followed the coaching history of the University of Kansas Jayhawks you’ll note (other than not mentioning the 60s and 70s) a sense of historical momentum that, I think, is reflected in football: Rinus Michels coached Johann Cruyff who coached Pep Guardiola who is coaching the next great manager.** Will it be Xavi, Puyol, or Iniesta? Perhaps it’s to be Pedro or Jeffren? JDS or Gai? Only time will tell, but I’d bet the house that one of the canteranos will become a manager–and a good one at that.
And so, fresh off internationals, the team travels to Almería, to the southern coast of Andalusia. According to Wikipedia, the city’s name comes from Arabic: المرية, or Al-Mariyya in Latin text. “The Mirror” as it translates to, sits on the reflective Mediterranean (hence the name), with its old castle, the Alcazaba, presiding over everything from its perch on a hill. On the other side of town sits a different kind of fortress: the Estadio de los Juegos Mediterráneos. The stadium holds some 22,000 people and is the home of Unión Deportiva Almería, a team founded way back in 1989…90 years after Barcelona got its first team. But they rose up the ranks and have yet to be relegated from the first division since making their first ascent for the 2007-08 season.
Almería is prepared for us. They know what we bring to the table, which is the desire to hold the ball. As their manager said, to paraphrase, “We both love the ball, but there’s only one in play.” And I, for one, believe it belongs to us. We’ll take our ball and go home, you know, like petulant children. Almería has had a good start to the second half of the season, actually earning more points in February than FCB (10 compared to 9). They’ve also got good players (Diego Alves in goal, Kalu Uche up front, for instance), but will they be able to withstand our frontal assault?
Barça’s squad: Valdés, Pinto, Alves, Puyol, Chygrynskiy, Márquez, Milito, Maxwell, Touré, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Jeffren, Bojan, Pedro, Messi, Henry, Ibrahimovic.
The notable absence is Gerard Piqué because of yellow card accumulation. Márquez trained normally after returning from international duty, while Messi and Henry both had light workouts. Maradona, of course, played Messi for 90 minutes. Great.
Predicted lineup: Valdés, Alves, Puyol, Milito, Maxwell, The Yaya, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro!, Messi, Ibrahimovic.
Time: 8pm local/Almería; 2pm EST/NYC; check your local time here.
TV: In the US, the match will be on ESPN Deportes and ESPN360.
Weather: ~50F (10C), slight chance of rain (20%). Shouldn’t be too bad a night.
Apologies for the shortened preview, but I have a job interview to prepare for today, so this is all I have time for. It is also why I have been posting sporadically of late. Hopefully I’ll be back with more later this evening or early tomorrow, but if not, tune in to the liveblog.
*So he moved to Spain to avoid bad reffing?
**I haven’t read Brilliant Orange yet, so forgive me if I should have included several people before and after Michels. I’ll get to it soon, I swear.