Barça prepares for the end of an era

Friday’s cup final against Athletic will be Guardiola’s last game as coach

Leo Messi embraces Pep Guardiola after scoring against Espanyol. / JOSEP LAGO (AFP)

Pep Guardiola will lead Barcelona out for the final time at Atlético Madrid's Vicente Calderón stadium on Friday night for the King's Cup final against Athletic Bilbao. It will represent the end to an era at the Catalan club that was confirmed last month but will not come into effect until the final whistle sounds in the Spanish capital.

When it does, Guardiola's name will be inscribed in the lore of FC Barcelona as both player and coach, whether his side's name is etched on the King's Cup or not.

In four seasons the former Spain international has delivered 13 trophies to an institution that defines itself as "more than a club" — it is a symbol of Catalan regional pride: the World Cup was celebrated in the streets of Barcelona with far more gusto than it would have been if the national side was heavily reliant on a Real Madrid contingent.

There is little doubt that Barcelona will pull out all the stops to hand Guardiola a 14th pot on Friday evening, although it will face stiff competition from Athletic Bilbao, which has been training solidly since La Liga concluded.

Marcelo Bielsa, the architect of Athletic's extraordinary season, was touted as a possible substitute for the Camp Nou bench whenever Guardiola decided to vacate it. The Argentinean, "El Loco", has forged an exceptional team from the rich vein of talent running through the Bilbao ranks and Barcelona was almost beaten when the two teams met in the league earlier in the season.

In any case, it promises to be an emotional evening as Guardiola commands an almost Messianic adoration from his players.

"It's difficult to put into words, we don't like that he's leaving," said Barça's cup goalkeeper, José Manuel Pinto.

"The final game will be a little sad so we are desperate to win to make this sad day a happy one and give him the perfect send-off."

"It is a bitter taste, but it's a personal decision that we have to respect," said Pedro, who was retained by Guardiola when the club was pondering selling the Canarian winger.

"I understand perfectly. He has demanded more of himself than anybody and after so many years... he has given it everything. The seasons are very long, there are many games, it takes it out of you. Let him rest. He's given everything for us and he changed my life."

The Spain midfielder believes that Friday's showpiece will be "very intense, a great game with goals played toe-to-toe. Athletic is very good, very intense, they pressure a lot. We'll have to be at our best to win."

Pedro also recognizes that it could be his last chance to impress Spain coach Vicente del Bosque, who is putting the finishing touches to his squad for the European Championships in Poland and the Ukraine in June, after a season marred by injuries.

"I don't know, it depends. I don't want to think about it too much. Whatever Del Bosque decides. But, if it depends on the cup, that's bad for me because I don't know if I'm going to play! This could be my last chance to impress the coach, but I don't know. We're playing in the cup final and I'm just thinking about that."

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