Barcelona set to toughen up under 'ultra-demanding' Luis Enrique

The Asturian coach wants his players fighting fit, fiercely competitive and raring to go as the Catalan club kick off a new era in the Primera Division on Sunday
By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer

Zero tolerance. A new era begins at Camp Nou and there will be no pandering to egos, no favouritism, no complaints and no excuses. Luis Enrique is in charge now and Barcelona kick off their season on Sunday under strict orders. It's time to toughen up.

Famed for their fantastic football under Pep Guardiola between 2008 and 2012, Barca were not known for their physicality and have found themselves outmuscled on a number of occasions over the last couple of seasons, notably by Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-finals in 2012-13 and then against Atletico Madrid several times last term.

But enough is enough. Luis Enrique kept himself in superb shape as a player and has dedicated much of his spare time to a punishing fitness programme since retirement, taking part in marathons, Ironman contests, mountain bike pursuits and other extreme sports. As coach of the Catalan club, he hopes the players will follow his example and strive for optimum fitness.

"Luis Enrique is not as demanding as people say," revealed midfielder Rafinha, who worked with the Asturian at Celta Vigo last season, earlier this summer. "No, he's much more demanding than that."

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The 44-year-old may not be popular with everyone at the club, but he is never afraid to speak his mind and is anything but a 'yes man'. In both of their previous appointments - Tito Vilanova and Gerardo Martino - the club looked for continuity in coaches capable of carrying on Guardiola's great work without upsetting the applecart or falling out with a group of players who collectively contributed to the most successful era in Barca's history.

Luis Enrique won't worry about that. He is his own man and has already let some of the senior players know that this will be no cakewalk. The Asturian put friendship to one side as he told Xavi: "I want you to stay, but don't complain when I don't pick you." And there were also some stern words for Gerard Pique, with the defender told he is no longer a first-choice player for Barca. Now, he'll have to earn it and if he is in the team, it will be on merit alone.

"I'm fiercely competitive," Xavi said on Friday. "I'm working hard to carry on being important. The coach makes the decisions, but I'm ready for anything and will accept any situation."

That will be music to Luis Enrique's ears. In fact, Xavi showed with his words that he is already speaking the same language as his former team-mate. "I need fierce competition from my players and I want them all to feel they are potential starters," the coach said on Saturday. "There are no first-choice players here."

There will be, of course. Lionel Messi is the world's finest footballer and Neymar will also expect to start the majority of the games. But they will have to earn it, too, and if they are not performing, Luis Enrique will have no qualms about hauling them off if he thinks the team will benefit.

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For all their brilliance under Guardiola, Barca cannot live off past glories and Luis Enrique wants his side to add a competitive edge to their passing philosophy, which is why he pushed for the summer signing of Luis Suarez from Liverpool.

"Suarez is great," Dani Alves said on Thursday. "He has competitive blood and it's a pleasure to have him here. We need more 'bad guys' because before it was only me. I was the only 'bad guy'..."

Now they have two and Luis Enrique, arguably, is another. Stubborn, short-fused and extremely demanding, the Asturian knows exactly what he wants. "Nobody can beat us in terms of hope and determination," he said on Saturday. "I always look for a solid group and for fierce competition."

He has it, and after a disappointing season which saw Barca claim only the Spanish Supercopa in 2013-14, the club's competitive edge seems set to return this season, starting at home to Elche on Sunday. "Fasten your seatbelts, because we're going for a ride," Guardiola said as he took over in 2008. With Luis Enrique, that rollercoaster ride appears to be heading back up to the top.

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