As the plaudits came thick and fast ahead of a second Champions League final in three seasons, Josep Guardiola attempted to play down the dynastic potential of his Barcelona side. "This team can never compete with the Dream Team," he said. "They started this."
Against Manchester United on May 28, 2011, Guardiola was proved wrong.
Not only did he emulate his mentor and former manager Johan Cruyff by lifting the European Cup at Wembley, Guardiola eclipsed the achievement of the Dutchman’s famed collective by masterminding one of the most devastating final performances in the competition’s history.
“It's the best team we have ever faced,” losing manger Sir Alex Ferguson conceded. “No one has ever given us a hiding like that.”
The champions of England had been swept away 3-1 in a performance that embodied the Guardiola era at Barcelona. Monopolising the ball with a fast-paced passing and pressing style, punctuated by moments of brilliance from the likes of Lionel Messi and David Villa, Barca ensured that the phrase tiki-taka was elevated from little-known Spanish colloquialism to part of the everyday football lexicon.
The swaggering style was certainly comparable to the Barca Dream Team of yore, but there was a more mythical makeup to the 2011 vintage. When Cruyff claimed the club’s first European Cup, Guardiola was one of two local players – Albert Ferrer the other – to start in the final against Sampdoria. His progress from Catalan countryside to Camp Nou pivote struck a chord with both players and supporters; the notion of promoting from within would develop into a central tenet of Guardiola’s philosophy.
Entrusting those developed by the same academy at which he once cut his footballing teeth, Guardiola forged a team rich in Catalan identity – embracing the mes que un club (more than a club) concept that Barcelona had always preached but never fully practised.
The 2011 Champions League was unquestionably the pinnacle of this philosophy, as seven La Masia graduates (it would have been eight had Carles Puyol not been injured) lined up against, and destroyed, United.
It was the culmination of a remarkable transformation overseen by Guardiola. Barca might have won the Champions League in 2006, but the side Guardiola inherited two seasons later was one that was beset by complacency and had just finished third in La Liga, an embarrassing 18 points behind champions Real Madrid.
The 37-year-old Guardiola immediately implemented his ideas, improving standards of fitness and selling star players like Ronaldinho and Deco to make way for hungrier young talent. Less than 12 months later, Barca had won the treble for the first time in their history.
A haul of 14 trophies in four years makes for remarkable reading and can be compared favourably to Cruyff’s 11 in eight years, though Guardiola’s contribution cannot merely be measured by Barcelona’s haul of silverware. An anticlimactic final season in 2011-12 should not detract from the fact that Guardiola injected a stagnating giant of a club with an ethos and style that not only reverberated around La Liga and Europe but permeated the Spain national team. Nine of his Barcelona players were part of the Spain squad that celebrated a historic World Cup triumph in 2010.
There is no question that Guardiola was mes que un Mister (more than a coach), though he will probably never be able to admit that he has surpassed Cruyff. A year after leaving Barca, he reiterated his belief that his mentor “has been the club's most influential figure” and that “everybody who came after him only added a personal touch.”
Leaving a legacy of attractive football, executed by players who lived and breathed Barcelona, Guardiola’s touch was Midas.
ESPN FC’s Top 20 Greatest Managers was determined by a polling process of over 20 regular columnists, contributors and editors at ESPN FC.