When Pep Guardiola waved Barcelona goodbye in 2012, Real Madrid fans were among the first to wish him a long and happy sabbatical from the game. Such was his effect on the Catalan club during his four years in charge, Madrillenos were as eager to see the back of him as they conceivably could be.
But, almost two years on, it is Guardiola and Barcelona who once again stand between Real Madrid and success.
First, the Blancos must negotiate their old foes in the Copa del Rey final on Wednesday, and now, thanks to Friday's Champions League semifinal draw, they know that Guardiola's Bayern Munich side will come to town the following week in a bid to halt Madrid's progress towards La Decima while advancing its own tilt at back-to-back European crowns.
Guardiola's rivalry with Madrid was undoubtedly heightened during Jose Mourinho's spell in charge at the Santiago Bernabeu, but there can be no mistaking the fact that Real owes him one. His three titles at Barca curtailed the capital club's short run as Spain's finest under Fabio Capello and Bernd Schuster, but he did more than just that.
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A 6-2 victory at the Bernabeu in 2009 signaled the dawning of a new era of Barca dominance, and a five-match winning streak in league Clasicos culminated in a sensational 5-0 win in a never-to-be-forgotten Monday night fixture in November 2010 which had Europe entranced. There were big wins in the Copa del Rey and the Supercopa de Espana too, while arguably the most gut-wrenching defeat for Madrid came in the 2011 Champions League semifinal as Guardiola's men waltzed to a second continental title under his charge.
Until recently, many have seen Madrid as Bayern's closest threat, and the Bavarians' difficulties in overcoming Manchester United in the quarterfinals might have heightened that belief for some in Spain. But Carlo Ancelotti's outfit bore the signs of a team with some issues of its own in narrowly avoiding an upset against Borussia Dortmund, and with Cristiano Ronaldo's fitness in question, the Italian will need to ensure that his vulnerable defense is bolstered ahead of a two-legged clash against Europe's most deadly club of recent times.
Been there, done that | Guardiola's Barca beat Madrid in the semifinals on the way to 2011 gloryAcross Madrid, Atletico comes up against the other half of the former Clasico coaching feud, with Mourinho's Chelsea blocking its path to a first Champions League final in 40 years.
While Diego Simeone's men have done marvelously well to reach the last four – and as La Liga's leader too – the tie against the Blues throws up their first major European test of sorts. A group stage involving clashes against Zenit St Petersburg, Porto and Austria Vienna saw the club go short of a truly great continental matchup, while the double victory over AC Milan was rather a reflection of the Italians' fall from grace.
Even the quarterfinal win over Barca, while a huge result, was achieved in a setting more familiar to big Spanish occasions than European adventures. Finally, in meeting the London outfit, the club has a huge Champions League tie to get its teeth into, and – thanks to UEFA's intervention – could do so with Thibaut Courtois between the posts.
The Belgian's involvement over the two legs could well prove to be the club's best hope, with the Chelsea loanee having proven time and again at big moments this season why he is credited to be the world's finest goalkeeper by many onlookers.
On the face of it, an Atletico side which continues to defy the duopoly of Madrid and Barcelona, and which has shown it can win big games without Diego Costa and Arda Turan, should have enough to overcome a Chelsea squad that showed defensive weaknesses at Paris Saint-Germain and has failed to get the best out of former Atleti hero Fernando Torres.
But Mourinho can be the toughest of opponents mentally, as Guardiola well knows. An all-Madrid Champions League final could yet be played out, but the imposing figures of the former Clasico foes stand squarely in the path.
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