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Guardiola relishes pressures of sophomore season

sports Updated: Aug 26, 2009 10:23 IST

AP
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Pep Guardiola is approaching his second season at Barcelona with trademark gusto, even with an historic treble to defend and with a keen rival buying up the world's best players in a bid to replace the Catalan club at the top.

Following a debut season that included league, domestic cup and Champions League triumphs, the 38-year-old Guardiola must be relishing the challenge even more now that it involves a revamped Real Madrid to contend with.

Madrid has spent a quarter of a billion Euros ($360 million) to recruit the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema. But Barcelona remains favorite for the Spanish league, mainly due to the disciplined football that Guardiola has instilled in the team.

"There's no secret _ he gives everything and doesn't want to stop to take a breath," midfielder Xavi Hernandez said. "He's crazy for football. I'm not sure if he's aware of his own intensity."

A former Barcelona player, Guardiola has been described as methodical and tireless, with a dedicated eye to detail and a tendency to being obsessive over video and tactics. "It is the intensity _ that was key in the success of last season," defender Rafael Marquez said.

That intensity comes from stern discipline, which Guardiola quickly brought to a locker room left in disarray after Frank Rijkaard's departure before last season.

Guardiola showed superstars Ronaldinho and Deco the door and this season sold Samuel Eto'o to Inter Milan as part of the euro66 million acquisition of Sweden striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. In Ibrahimovic _ Barcelona's record signing _ Guardiola saw Serie A's leading scorer as the perfect counterbalance to Lionel Messi and the two have already displayed an understanding in only 115 minutes of playing time together, most notably in Barcelona's Spanish Supercup victory on Sunday.

Ibrahimovic said Guardiola's desire was immediately apparent. "Guardiola wants to win, you can really see that in him when he explains things that it's all about winning. He's very hungry, he's never satisfied," Ibrahimovic told the Associated Press on Tuesday. "If I were a trainer and I won everything the first year I would have quit."

Guardiola sees a team with improved character following Eto'o's departure _ of which he is taking full responsibility for _ even if the Cameroon striker was an integral part to the team's three league and two Champions League titles over the past five years. "When the coach says that the best thing is to replace the striker because of a feeling, you have to respect the decision," defender Gerard Pique said. "You have to agree with the coach always because if he arrives and he makes the team win the treble, you have to respect all of his decisions."

Guardiola's personality has obviously rubbed off on his players, who enjoy playing the possessive, one-touch football that has prevailed at Barcelona since Johan Cruyff arrived from Ajax. "I'm surprised at the attitude shown since our return and the intensity with which they are training," Guardiola said of the pre-season work. "I haven't had to talk with them much. I get the feeling that with our character we'll be competitive this season." His emotional personality _ and even his dress sense _ has made Guardiola something of an icon, and Barcelona fans are hoping he renews his contract beyond this season. Guardiola is committed to the club whatever the outcome, even as he confesses that nothing is certain.

"It's going to be very tough. There's always great possibilities that we won't succeed again," Guardiola said.

But his legacy _ although he is still early in his tenure _ already gives the Catalan club an edge in the upcoming fight with Madrid.

"Barcelona has the advantage of a team that is already set, the same coach, and we already know our system of play," Xavi said. "I think we have a certain advantage. And I think that's something we need to take advantage of."