When Luis Enrique steps out onto the pitch tonight for the first leg of the Champions League Semifinal he may as well be invisible. With Pep’s return to Nou Camp, the semi-final re-match with Bayern Munich, and the players involved in the game most will not spare a thought for the Barcelona manager. Yet, amongst all who will have a hand in deciding the game, nobody has more invested in the outcome than Luis Enrique.
As it stands previous to kick-off, Barcelona under Enrique are favorites to win three trophies in the next 30 days, completing a treble season that was unimaginable 8 months ago. In doing so, Enrique would earn a place in Barcelona’s pantheon of managers. Conversely, by winning two trophies but failing in Europe may ensure Enrique’s stay in Barcelona is a short one.
Two trophies in the first year but still shown the door? Strange, yes, but rarely are things simple in Barcelona. In essence, on Wednesday Enrique is not only fighting for immortality, but also for his job. The game against Bayern Munich is Luis Enrique’s chance to prove he is the right manager for Barcelona, elections, politics, and style be damned.
Despite Barcelona’s relative successful season, Enrique has been criticized by supporters and pundits (this author included) for the way the team has played. Although Barcelona continued to rack up the victories and were never really out of the league race, something seemed off at the club.
What was missing was the style that Barcelona has come to define. Enrique had the team winning but never really dominating; sure the defense was better and Messi was back to being the Messi no one can believe exists, but it wasn’t enough.
Every victory seemed like the squad did just enough. The latter El Clasico was a victory for Barcelona but could have been an easy win for Madrid. Barcelona just kept doing enough to win and as such were never able to silence the criticism.
But in the last month something has changed. Barcelona are dominating their opponents and suddenly look invincible. The team is back to using their midfield while not completely abandoning the long diagonal balls Enrique introduced—a style of play that gives the club the ability to strike fast or slowly build possession and angles to dissect their opponents.
This change has been attributed to many things: Enrique giving the reigns up to the players to go play, him learning to adapt to what his team strengths are, his ideas finally gelling with the team’s philosophy, or the fact that Barcelona’s last four opponents weren’t the strongest of tests (PSG was defeated before their boots touched the pitch).
Whatever it is, Enrique’s Barcelona is peaking and playing the best they have under him and heading into the home stretch, the manager has the club right where they need to be.
Barcelona are playing at a level that is not only fun to watch but seemingly impossible to stop. If Enrique can keep similar performances coming he has the chance to become a club legend and earn a seat in Barcelona’s history.
Speaking of club legends, the semi-final tie with Bayern and Pep is Enrique’s chance to not only silence the critics but also for once and for all to step out of the all-encompassing shadow left behind by Guardolia. If winning the biggest trophy in club football is not enough to silence those against Enrique then winning it by knocking out their idol surely must be.
A dominating Barcelona performance over two legs or even just two good outings that allows Barcelona to move on will show that Pep is not the only one that can lead Barcelona to European glory.
A humbled Pep and a victorious Enrique would make it nearly impossible for Enrique to be compared negatively to the legend again.
He may not equal his popularity or his title count, but by getting the better of him over two legs and in the process delivering another European Cup to Barcelona, Enrique may never have to worry about Pep’s shadow again.
Finally, as has been mentioned before, a Champions League title may be the only thing that could keep Enrique at Nou Camp.
Granted eliminating Pep will not hurt even that may not be enough. Barcelona’s form the last month has been nothing short of amazing and if the team continues to perform at this level, he should surely have proven his worth. But his value and importance would be to the squad not the new president.
If Enrique wants to build on what he has helped create, his only chance is to make Barcelona the toast of Europe once again. His chance starts Wednesday.
In just under a month, Luis Enrique has the chance to secure his job, silence his critics, and earn a place in Barcelona history. He may not succeed in any of those or he may continue to surprise everyone and stand triumphantly in Berlin next month.
All that is clear is that before the whistle blows Wednesday night, Luis Enrique has a chance and that is all one can really ask for.