Liverpool are going to win the Premier League title this season. Unless...
Pep Guardiola gushes when the topic is about Marcelo Bielsa. The Manchester City boss waxed lyrical about the man when the Argentinian arrived at Elland Road in 2018 to take charge of Leeds United. He hailed Bielsa as mentor and “best coach in the world”.
WATCH: Guardiola responds to Bielsa's 'spygate' saga
Guardiola revels in telling the tale of making an 8,000km trek to the widely respected coach’s ranch in Rosario in the Argentinian spring of 2006. In that October day, the sun was setting on the Spaniard’s sterling 22-year career – 17 with Barcelona – as playmaker. He sat at the feet of Bielsa to tap the football veteran’s knowledge before making the transition to coach.
This sounds like a familiar story from a time in another dimension when Luke Skywalker sought to learn the art of the Jedi from Yoda. He had to travel the galaxy and then crashed his starfighter at Dagobah to stand before the Jedi master. Allow the imagination some room and the resemblance of the protagonists in both places is uncanny.
There must have been echoes at Rosario that day of Yoda telling his young student, “You must unlearn what you have learned … Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
Whatever wisdom Bielsa imparted, Guardiola went on to become a coach of galactic stature. At Barcelona from 2007 to 2012, he guided the club to the La Liga title thrice in a row and the Champions League twice. His stint with Bayern Munich for three seasons also yielded as many Bundesliga titles on the trot. A year after arriving at City in 2016, he then steered the Manchester team to two straight Premier League crowns.
WATCH: Bielsa explains why Guardiola is a unique coach
In his meteoric rise, the 49-year-old faced off with Bielsa three times. It was in the 2011-12 season when his Barcelona side got the better of the Argentinian’s Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish Copa del Rey final, and won one and squared the other in the La Liga.
Their paths are crossing again. On Sunday morning (SGT), the 65-year-old master will host his former pupil when Leeds entertain Manchester City at Elland Road.
How do they stack up?
The data doesn’t flatter Leeds. For starters, only a castle can accommodate all of Guardiola’s trophies. Bielsa’s can be stuffed into just a duffel bag – for the 2004 Olympic gold as his country’s coach, the 1991 and 1992 Argentinian league titles with Newell's Old Boys, and another with Vélez Sarsfield in 1998. Of course, there is that minor matter of plotting Leeds’ return to the Premier League this year.
WATCH: Throwback to Bielsa's 1992 title with Newell's Old Boys
City’s squad are also valued at a whopping €1.03 billion. The bunch at Elland Road are worth only a fart, €147 million in all. This weekend’s clash is about the peasants taking on English football’s aristocrats. But the tale of the tape is so far just a tale. City were punched drunk 5-2 at home by Leicester last Sunday.
Guardiola puts it down to a loss in belief. But is it all in the head? It must have been a major mental short circuit because this is the only way to explain why the defence, that he spent £400 million on building, gave away three penalties in a single match. Kyle Walker, Eric Garcia and Benjamin Mendy were all caught on the back foot from the Foxes’ counter attacks and brought down Jamie Vardy twice and James Maddison once in the box.
But there is some relief for Guardiola. Central defender Aymeric Laporte, out injured for 12 months, is now back and started on Wednesday when City strolled past Burnley 3-0 in the EFL Cup. Influential playmaker Bernardo Silva has also returned from a month-long injury and featured after the break.
WATCH: Sterling and Torres help Man City down Burnley in Carabao Cup
Upfront, gunslinger-in-chief Raheen Sterling finally found his mark with a brace, after misfiring in the first two Premier League matches. Ferran Torres, who replaced Leroy Sane, now at Bayern Munich, also scored, but whether he can reinstate the lethal trident with Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne, is a £20-million question.
It seems, then, that Guardiola’s knights have sharpened the tips of their lances in time for City’s visit to Elland Road. For Leeds, after the 3-4 loss to Liverpool, this will be the biggest test for the Bielsa upstarts. But they are now a fuller squad after a slew of signings.
The arrival of Spain international Diego Llorente and German Robin Koch have boosted the defence squad of skipper Liam Cooper, Stuart Dallas and Luke Aiyling. A stable backline will free Kalvin Philips and Helder Costa to unleash Patrick Bamford and new striker Rodrigo at goal.
Odds, though, are still in City’s favour. But if Guardiola learnt anything at all in that visit to Rosario 16 years ago, he must know Bielsa is not easily cowered. The Argentinian is a film buff and likely heeds Yoda’s warning to Skywalker’s father, Anakin, who eventually became Darth Vader, “The fear of loss is a path to the dark side … Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”