Pep Guardiola was late down to the press room deep in the bowels of the Camp Nou main stand. Very late. It was over an hour after the final whistle and the Camp Nou was empty.
The 4,800 ecstatic Chelsea fans had been the last to leave, singing "We're going to Germany" as they climbed the hundreds of steps down from the third tier. They'd had a great day and night, their pre-match confidence and chants of "Who needs Messi when we've got Kalou?" upheld by the defensive quality in their side on the biggest stage.
The home fans had left on the whistle, not whistling or booing their heroes, but by applauding them off the field and singing the stirring 'Barça!' anthem. They applauded Chelsea too. It's easy to be magnanimous in victory, less so in defeat. The Catalan media were more critical of Chelsea, saying that the Londoners 'anti-football', their 'catenaccio' had triumphed.
Barça fans have seen more trophies in the last four years than any football fans can expect in a lifetime. To complain would be an affront to the term 'supporters', but Guardiola was still pressed for answers as he sat down in front of some of the 700 journalists from 138 countries. "What would you say to the young Barça fan who cried for the first time tonight?" asked one. It was a loaded, emotive, question. "Welcome to the club," smiled Guardiola. "That's the beauty of sports, sometimes you laugh, sometimes you cry."
He was right. Football isn't only about winning, no matter how high the expectations. And they are ridiculously high at Barcelona. Spanish football is obsessed with cycles. When a successful team loses a few matches everyone asks if it's the end of a cycle. The bigger they are they harder they fall and when a Barca side considered the best ever in the eyes of their followers (and many neutrals) misses out of fourth successive domestic league title and a chance of a third Champions League victory in four years the cynics and enemies come out of the shadow.
Journalists had pushed Gerard Pique and Guardiola far the day before the game, asking if it was the end of a cycle. Pique said that Barça had lost a couple of games and nothing more, that their achievements warranted more respect. Guardiola was cool, open and collected as ever, but the persistent negative interrogation obviously irritated. He didn't like it when his team selection was questioned for the defeat to Real Madrid and felt protective over the selection of one young player. "If you have to, attack me, not Tello," snapped the Catalan coach, who was pushed in a manner which other managers wouldn't tolerate. Sir Alex Ferguson would have left the press conference and had the offending journalists banned long before, but Guardiola faced the tough line of questioning, even if he didn't like it.
They continued after the draw to Chelsea. Guardiola said that he will decide his future over the next few days after talks with his family and Barça president Sandro Rosell. The players want him to carry on, the fans too. Pique added that Guardiola has loved the club all his life and had no reason to leave, but his future is uncertain. Does he walk away now having won everything and with little to prove? Or does he continue with a team that some are saying is at the end of its cycle? I'm not convinced it is.
I watch Barça live in a working capacity around 25 times a season and the same again on television. They've been brilliant for most of this season. They're shattered at the minute and were shorn of inspiration and Messi's genius against Madrid and Chelsea, Barça-lite if you like, but every team loses. Football would be boring if they didn't. Barca lost the 2010 Champions League semi-final and there were suggestions that Barça had been "sussed." They bounced back to win the competition at Wembley a year later. And they are already favourites to do the same at next year's final — again in London. Guardiola's greatest challenge is a mental one - retaining a hunger in his players, something he's done by getting rid of those players he thinks have become complacent, from Ronaldinho to Deco.
There are no obvious targets now, though Pique's over-indulgent lifestyle has seen him dropped from recent matches. Guardiola may hope for more luck with injuries too — the long term absences of David Villa and Eric Abidal were important, while Alexis Sanchez had four spells out the side with injury in his first season at Camp Nou. He's always maintained that Barça will stay true to the Cruyff- inspired passing game and talk of them having no plan B is lazy. Barça adapt all the time, but they are never going to start playing a 4-4-2 or playing long balls. The fans just wouldn't accept it.
Barça need resting and tweaking, though that's difficult when most of their players are involved in Euro 2012 and some in the Olympics. They need a couple of new players — a left back and maybe a central defender, but little more. They lost a couple of games of football but as the unlikely hero of Camp Nou Fernando Torres said: "This is football. The best doesn't always win. You can't play beautifully against Barça, they're the best team in the world."
- Sports & Recreation