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PSG v Man City: Inside the complex relationship of Lionel Messi and Pep Guardiola as Champions League reunion looms
Courtesy of The Athletic, settle in for a fascinating long read on the dynamic between two men who won everything together at Barcelona and will meet again tonight, exclusively live on BT Sport.
Every photographer working at the Parc des Princes will have one primary objective in tonight’s Champions League game — capturing the moment that Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola reunites with Paris-Saint Germain forward Lionel Messi.
“They will salute each other and hug emotionally,” says a source who knows Messi well.
“Their relationship has always been good, closer at some times than others, but always good. They owe each other a lot."
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In their four seasons together at Nou Camp, Barcelona won 14 trophies — including three La Liga crowns, two Champions Leagues and two World Club Cups.
Messi also firmly established himself as the best individual player in the world — his first Ballon d’Or came after his first full season under Guardiola in 2008-09, and he retained it every year they worked together from that point.
That is not to say that everything ran smoothly day to day between two such driven and complicated characters. By the time Guardiola left Barcelona in 2012, the power balance between them had shifted considerably, and it was better for both that they parted.
The nine years since have also seen their names interlinked continuously. Messi has definitely enjoyed their previous on-pitch meetings more than Guardiola, and there have been constant rumours that they could be reunited, something that really was very close to happening in 2020.
“Together they won everything,” says another source who has worked with Messi.
“Guardiola has not won another Champions League without Leo — he will know that with Leo, he was a better coach. And Leo has never won so much again either, so that professional respect will always be there between them.”
“We can’t allow Messi to bear the weight of the team,” said Guardiola during his presentation as Barcelona’s first-team head coach in June 2008. “I don’t think it would be good for him or the club.”
Guardiola already had a plan to put Messi, who was just about to turn 21 and had been sporadically brilliant on the wing under predecessor Frank Rijkaard, at the centre of everything that happened in the team. But he knew it was going to need to be sensitively handled.
The first test of the rookie coach’s man-management of Messi came during that summer’s pre-season training camp at St Andrews in Scotland.
Messi was sulking as he wanted to play for Argentina at the following month’s Olympic Games in Beijing, but Barcelona wouldn’t let him as they had a Champions League qualifier against Wisla Krakow.
Guardiola seized the opportunity to show Messi he was on his side by convincing club president Joan Laporta that a short-term loss would bring the long-term gain of his gratitude.
This fit with Guardiola’s No 1 one priority, which was to keep Messi happy, often through public flattery.
“Messi is the best player in the world, so, simply, we just try and keep him happy,” Guardiola said early in his reign. “If he is happy, it is much easier for him to play well.”
Off the pitch, Laporta and Barcelona’s board did their bit by constantly improving Messi’s contract and making him central to the club’s marketing and identity.
Meanwhile, Guardiola ruthlessly sacrificed huge players such as Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic so that Messi had the central attacking role all to himself.
Even Spanish national team heroes Xavi, Andres Iniesta and David Villa were tasked with providing him with the ball in the best position for him to stand out.
This did not mean that Messi could just do whatever he wanted — Guardiola still wanted to control everyone in his squad, as much as possible.
Messi’s diet was changed — with cola, popcorn, pizza and chocolate peanuts banned. Better fitness was required so that Messi could do the required pressing off the ball that was now non-negotiable for all Barcelona’s players, even the most talented.
Guardiola had long conversations over meals with key players like Xavi and Iniesta but with Messi, he communicated through brief talks, gestures, smiles and even silences. “With Messi, you need to speak little to him and listen closely to the little that he says,” Guardiola said.
Tactical instructions for some players were very detailed — Messi just received enough information to complement his natural understanding of what he had to do.
Instead of directly telling Messi he needed to work hard and press in a game, he would tell the whole dressing room that Leo was going to do it, so they had to too.
“Leo does value a lot when coaches prepare well for the games,” says the source who knows Messi well. “Guardiola was clever enough to give just the information that would help him. Something that both Pep and Leo have in common is that they are perfectionists.”
It worked for both. In Guardiola’s first season, Barcelona won an unprecedented La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League treble. Messi also stepped up through the gears with individual brilliance and consistency that nobody has ever matched.
During Rijkaard’s final season, Messi scored 16 goals and gave 16 assists. In his first year with Guardiola, those tallies rose to 38 goals and 19 assists, then 47 and 12, 53 and 25 and finally 73 goals and 32 assists in what was an individually phenomenal 2011-12 campaign.
“He was already maybe the best player in the world,” says a source close to figures at the club during that time. “But he became so much better — a much less individual player. That jump would not have happened without Guardiola.”
There were still moments when Guardiola felt the need to make a correction, especially in the early days. “A “Guardiolina” is a telling-off, but in Guardiola’s style.
“It is always private and disguised to avoid collateral damage,” wrote Marti Perarnau in his book El Largo Viaje de Pep (Pep’s Long Journey), while revealing that one such telling-off came in February 2009 a few days after Messi had neglected his off-the-ball duties during a derby against Espanyol.
At times, Messi also felt the need to demonstrate his untouchable status. He made it clear he would decide when he needed a rest — and that would be never. During their first season together, he openly defied his coach by drinking a can of Coke in the dressing room before a game.
Ibrahimovic joined in 2009 and immediately started scoring goals at centre-forward but Messi sent Guardiola a text message while both were sitting in different seats on the team bus: “Well, I see I’m no longer important for the team, so…”
Such behaviour was accepted as Guardiola knew that Messi shared the same obsession as he did — to win every game and every trophy.
“Messi doesn’t like not playing, and does not like losing,” says the source who knows him. “If he is angry, he lets you know. There can be headaches, but then he is a genius, so that comes with the territory. But in the end, Leo has always been primarily worried about football, the next game, winning things.”
Making space for Messi to be at the centre of his team, without putting too much weight on his shoulders, was a tricky balancing act. When it worked it was fantastic for everyone, but there was always the risk of it collapsing. And as each year went by, it got harder for the two obsessive personalities to rub along together.
Pep was worried that he would end up breaking his relationship with Leo completely. He could see that it was getting more and more strained.
- Barcelona source
By the start of the 2011-12 season, the cracks were starting to show. After Messi was rested for a routine La Liga game against Real Sociedad, he skipped training the next morning and was a sullen presence at the training ground when he did come back.
After that, Guardiola played him every single minute of every game he was available for the season. Messi now had total freedom on the pitch, something nobody in Guardiola’s sides, either at Barcelona or since, has enjoyed. He finished the campaign with 50 goals in La Liga, 73 in all competitions. But the team was not reaching the collective level of previous years.
“From the start of this season, Barcelona have stopped playing for Xavi and have played directly for Messi,” wrote Perarnau in February 2012 after a 3-2 defeat at Osasuna left them some way behind Real Madrid in the title race. A few weeks later, Cristiano Ronaldo scored the winner in a La Liga clasico at the Nou Camp, and Jose Mourinho’s team were all but assured of the title.
With Messi now so central to absolutely everything, Barcelona had a big problem on the (admittedly, very few) days that their key player did not do something special.
The term “Messidependencia” came into use, especially in the Madrid-supporting media, and it hurt — because it rang true. This was most obvious during April 2012’s surreal Champions League semi-final second leg against Chelsea. John Terry was sent off, Messi slammed a penalty off the crossbar, and Barcelona somehow lost against 10 men.
That night confirmed the end of Guardiola’s time as Barcelona coach. Messi was among the players who sent him messages asking him to reconsider, but the decision had long been coming.
“Four years is an eternity as Barcelona coach,” Guardiola said at the press conference when he confirmed his exit. “I no longer have the energy and drive to get the most out of the players in every game. I need to take a break and relax.”
Explaining why he felt so “burned out” by the job, Guardiola did not mention any player by name, but it was widely assumed that Messi was among those he felt he could no longer get the best out of. “Pep was worried that he would end up breaking his relationship with Leo completely,” says a source who knew the dressing room well. “He could see that it was getting more and more strained.”
Messi had been too upset to even attend that press conference, but he showed his appreciation in the best way he knows.
In Guardiola’s final game as Barcelona coach at the Nou Camp, he scored all four goals in a 4-0 derby win against Espanyol. After opening the scoring with a free-kick, Messi pointed to Guardiola on the bench, and Guardiola pointed right back.
After his fourth, he ran over to the touchline and embraced the coach, with team-mates piling on too. In his biographies of both men, Guillem Balague says that Guardiola whispered in Messi’s ear, “Thanks for everything.”
Guardiola soon put space between himself and everything to do with Barcelona, moving with his family to New York, staying away from the Nou Camp.
He deliberately did not remain close to his former players, although their paths would still cross as members of the global football elite — for example, at the ceremony for the 2012 Ballon d’Or, where Guardiola spoke with Messi while appearing to snub Ronaldo.
“Their relationship has always been good, exchanging messages, talking when they see each other,” says the source who knows Messi. “Sometimes more, sometimes less, like all friends or former colleagues.”
Guardiola did not set foot in the Nou Camp again until March 2015, when he was already well-established as Bayern Munich manager.
Still a Barca socio, he used his season ticket to sit beside his father Valenti in the stand for a Champions League last-16 game against Manchester City. TV cameras captured Guardiola’s joyful reaction when Messi nutmegged City midfielder James Milner. Messi also set up the night’s only goal with a perfectly timed and weighted assist for Ivan Rakitic.
The draw for that season’s Champions League semi-finals brought Guardiola back as Bayern coach. Messi did the pre-game news conference, a sign of how seriously he took the reunion, given he almost never did those media duties during his 15 years in Barcelona’s first team.
“The truth is that since he left we have not been in touch too often, we met once at a FIFA gala,” he said when asked by reporters how often he had spoken with Guardiola over the past three years. “We had a very good relationship when he was here, but not much contact since.”
Such a lack of contact did not seem a problem to Messi though, and he was happy to speak about how he had “improved so much as a player during Guardiola’s time here, and won all the trophies”.
The following evening’s game was a high-quality tactical battle for 77 minutes, with both sides pushing and probing for an advantage.
Then Messi finally found a way past Bayern goalkeeper Manuel Neuer with a perfectly placed 20-yard snapshot. In the next attack, he left visiting defender Jerome Boateng on his behind before calmly lifting the ball over Neuer with his right foot for one of the best goals of his career.
A few weeks later, Luis Enrique’s side beat Juventus 3-1 to match the treble of Guardiola’s first season as Barcelona coach.
The following summer saw Guardiola take over as City manager, something that had seemed inevitable given how many of his former Barcelona colleagues were now at the Etihad Stadium. City’s Abu Dhabi owners had also always seemed open to the idea of spending whatever it would take to get Messi if he were ever available.
Right from day one, however, Guardiola was clear that he would not be pushing to prise his former player away. “No, Messi should stay at Barcelona for the rest of his career,” was the blunt response that was repeated again and again.
That summer, City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak asked Guardiola to call Messi and offer to triple his Barcelona salary, but how hard Guardiola actually pushed during the conversation only he and Messi know.
The answer was clear whenever anybody asked whether a City player — most often Kevin De Bruyne — was playing so well that he could rival Messi as the world’s best. “Messi is on a table on his own,” Guardiola said in September 2016. “But the table beside, Kevin can sit there.” Messi’s hat-trick in a 4-0 win when the teams met in that season’s Champions League group stages also seemed to confirm this seating arrangement in everyone’s heads.
Summer 2020 was different though — this time, it was Messi who picked up the phone to call Guardiola and say that he was about to send the infamous burofax and trigger a clause in his contract that would make him available for a free transfer. “It looked for a while like they would be back together again,” says a knowledgeable source.
But when Bartomeu stood firmer than expected and said that a court battle would be required to extricate himself, Messi stepped back and Guardiola also declined to push publicly. Neither he nor his Catalan colleagues at City were keen to appear as the bad guys who stole Barcelona’s best-ever player.
This summer, when Messi actually was available, City’s attention was elsewhere. Instead, they were splashing £100 million on Jack Grealish and trying to sign Harry Kane from Tottenham. Then, at the very end of the window, after Messi had already joined PSG, City suddenly looked very close to signing Cristiano Ronaldo.
“There are few players, Ronaldo and Messi included, who decide themselves where they are going to play,” said Guardiola that week.
This also came true as the Portuguese returned to Manchester United, while Messi wasted no time in agreeing a move to PSG once it was clear that Barcelona could no longer afford him.
Whether bad luck or bad timing, there has never been a moment when both Guardiola and Messi were willing to really move everything to be together again.