Guardiola dreaming big at Barça
© AFP

Though Frank Rijkaard's time as coach at the Camp Nou had its share of highs, with the likes of Ronaldinho and Deco central to many of those, a two-year trophy drought sounded the death knell for the Dutchman and has ushered in a new era at Barcelona.

Criticised for poor recent results and a lack of silverware, club president Joan Laporta decided to change tack this summer and entrust coaching duties to former Barça star Josep 'Pep' Guardiola, who is determined to get the Azulgranas back on the victory trail.

With the appointment of Guardiola, the club's first Spanish manager for six years, the Culés have made a clear statement of intent with respect to their system of play. The 37-year-old Catalan, himself a product of the Barça youth academy, was a key member of Johan Cruyff's Dream Team that swept all before them in the early 90s. Along with fellow academy graduates like Albert Ferrer and Guillermo Amor, and established stars of the day such as Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov, Michael Laudrup and Romario, the Catalan giants delighted fans the world over with their goals, titles and exquisite brand of football.

Guardiola has the advantage of being Culé to the core and steeped in the traditions of football Barça-style; that is to say one based on subtle touches, precision passing and a commitment to attack. With his only prior coaching experience coming with the club's B team - he only gained his coaching badges in 2005 - the new incumbent will be hoping his thorough grounding in all things Barça can compensate for his relative inexperience on the bench.

From day one, Guardiola has certainly shown a clear vision and firm hand, leaving no one in any doubt as to what he is looking for in his team. One of the first measures he took pre-season was to clear the air in the dressing room, making it abundantly clear as to where he stood on discipline. He then caused a further stir by announcing that team heavyweights Ronaldinho, Deco and Samuel Eto'o were not in his plans for the coming season.

And while the Cameroonian responded to the new coach's challenge by sharpening his game pre-season and doing what he does best - scoring goals - Deco opted for a move to Chelsea, with Ronaldinho preferring to make a fresh start at AC Milan.

Old favourites up for new challenge
In spite of the departure of two players integral to the most recent successes at the club, Guardiola's present squad is lacking neither quality nor firepower. The Argentinian Lionel Messi, recent winner of the gold medal at the Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008 and runner-up in the FIFA World Player of the Year awards in 2007, will spearhead Barcelona's quest for La Liga and UEFA Champions League glory alongside French striker Thierry Henry and a re-invigorated Eto'o.

Furthermore, the Azulgrana can call on a trio of UEFA EURO 2008 champions in their quest for glory: Xavi, voted the tournament's best player, and Andres Iniesta will form the crux of the midfield, while talismanic captain Carles Puyol should again be a commanding presence in the centre of defence.

However, Guardiola, given his own background, will need no reminding of the importance of Barça's emerging youth players to his new project. Heading this promising list is Bojan Krkic, with the likes of Pedro Ledesma and Victor S. Mata also touted as ones to watch.

Having played a leading role in the original Barcelona Dream Team, Guardiola would dearly love to shape one of his own, something the coach knows can only happen a game at a time. At least the early signs have been good, with the Catalans passing their first big test by easing past Polish side Wilsa (4-1 on aggregate) to claim their place in Champions League group phase.

Little by little, the club's recent signings have been adapting to the team's system of play. Former Sevilla duo Daniel Alves and Seydou Keita have been tasked with retaining possession, a key component of Barça's playing style, while the arrival of Belarus international Alexander Hleb from Arsenal will offer another outlet in midfield. Further back, the Uruguayan Martin Caceres and the returning youth-team graduate Gerard Pique should bolster a defence that still revolves around the inspirational Carles Puyol.

The question now is whether Guardiola can convert the fans' and players' obvious hunger for success into silverware, without letting this anxiety for results adversely affect his goals. If he can manage this and his side gel quickly and settle into their rhythm, there could be plenty to celebrate over the coming years.