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Defiant to the last, Luis Enrique is set for one last Clasico showdown

April 21, 2017 5:06 PM
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Defiant to the last, Luis Enrique is set for one last Clasico showdown

Legend has it that the Reconquista began at Covadonga in the mountains of Asturias in 718 or 719 when Pelayo defeated the Moors. Poorly armed and unassisted by anyone, some versions of the story have barely 300 men resisting and then routing a feared, undefeated force that had overrun the rest of the peninsula and numbered in the thousands. Only Asturias had never been conquered; now the nobleman sparked a rebellion that headed south over the next 700 years. A statue of Pelayo stands near the holy cave where his remains lie: With a sword in one hand and his gaze fixed, he is muscular, proud and defiant.

After the Champions League exit to Juventus the man who will be Barcelona's coach for just seven more games vowed to fight to the finish, despite entering a period when all appears lost and nostalgia can take hold, when it may be natural to lay down arms, subconsciously at least.

Luis Enrique's footballing reconquest starts against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday. Winning is an obligation -- three points behind having played a game more, even a draw would virtually end Barca's title hopes -- but he insists it is also an opportunity. Nobody said it would be easy, after all, and he claims he prefers it to be so difficult.

"We have the chance to put ourselves clearly in the title race in game against a direct opponent, another contender, the leader," Luis Enrique said. "It is hard to pick yourself up after a defeat but we have the best stimulus a culer could have, the best a Barcelona player could have: playing our greatest rival at the Bernabeu. It will be hard to raise them but it will be easy to motivate them.

"I'm a fighter, like my players, I am prepared for anything, especially difficult things. I've got Asturian genes. Pelayo has a lot to do with it. I feel better when I have to rebel than when I have to enjoy it; something that I've been lucky enough to be able to do a lot at this club. But I feel more comfortable in those weeks when there's war."

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Now, he might have referred to the Asturias Revolution of 1934 instead and what he did cite might be a comically over-blown -- Luis Enrique has no beard, no sword and is no Pelayo, while the Bernabeu is not exactly Covadonga -- but it is true that he likes adversity, having competed in iron man competitions, cycled 205km through the Pyrenees and run across the Moroccan desert with a rucksack on his back for fun.

Even if Luis Enrique's protests don't convince -- prickly sarcasm suggests sensitivity and repeated claims to never read the press are usually made by those that do, while he admitted exhaustion hastened his exit -- it's also true that he likes a challenge, the harder the better, and a touch of confrontation.

This is special for Barcelona's manager. He has always lived these games intensely, and with a hint of dark enjoyment. For five years, he lived them on one side; then for eight he lived them on the other. For the last three, he has lived them from the bench. On Sunday, he will live his last.

He will miss it. If these final days as Barcelona manager are nostalgic, that sensation may be enhanced as he takes up his position on the touchline in an arena where he always said he likes being whistled. Which is good because he will be whistled this weekend.

Luis Enrique left Madrid and renounced his past. He famously said that he didn't recognise himself in white. He talked about how Barcelona was his home and after he retired he lived in Gava, not far outside the city. The point of repeating how at home he was, so often, was the "unlike Madrid" that went without saying.

And it is interesting how often, as his time at Barcelona comes to an end, the criticism fiercer with every passing day, he talks about Asturias. He always did -- his support for Sporting Gijon has always been worn as a badge of honour -- but perhaps it is more pointed now. Or perhaps it just feels that way.

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Either way, it was Pelayo who he cited this week. Fight, adversity, rebellion, war. Luis Enrique identified fully with Barcelona, renouncing Real Madrid. He celebrated Catalan victories, even when he was no longer there. He enjoyed winding it up. He played for Barcelona, managed the B team and then became first-team coach. And while he tended to moderate his tone as manager, while it's never the same as being a player out there in the middle of the madness, there was still something a bit mischievous in the way he addressed the media.

Last season his team went to the Bernabeu and won 4-0. How they play this time will help to define the way that Luis Enrique is remembered: He was a treble-winning coach in his first year and a double-winning coach in his second but, if they do not win on Sunday, the best he can realistically hope for is a single title in his third and that would be the least important of them all: Barcelona face Alaves in the Copa del Rey final.

With all the other doubts about him and amid intense debate about how Barcelona are losing identity under the manager who so publicly identified with them, victory arguably becomes even more necessary. Which, he says, is the way he likes it. Obligation, the odds stacked against you, adversity. He prefers a "war", he said, and there especially.

How Luis Enrique is remembered as a manager remains to be seen; when he is remembered as a player, it is as someone who was ultra-competitive, who scrapped for everything, who embraced these kinds of battles. Think of him in El Clasico and you see him pulling at his Barcelona shirt and running towards the Madrid fans. Or maybe chest-out, confronting his greatest rivals, an opponent's hand in his face. Zinedine Zidane's hand, in fact.

Also read: Real Madrid 2-3 Barcelona El Clasico, LA LIGA RESULT: Relive all the action as it happened

Maybe Luis Enrique didn't always play the "Barcelona way," although that identity is more contested than some allow, and maybe he didn't always manage the "Barcelona way" either, but he did things his way and these were his kinds of games. An Asturian in a battle between Castille and Catalonia.

It is one he must win this time, or it is all over ahead of time, but he says he is happier at war. He faced a crisis when the two teams met in December and, but for a last-minute goal, Barcelona would have won. Sergio Ramos' headed equaliser is part of the reason they are here now, in this situation, as they head to the Santiago Bernabeu.

On Sunday night, Luis Enrique steps into that arena one last time. He will miss it; it is what gets him going. At the end of the season, he will walk away. He says he will take a sabbatical and admits that he needs it, but he might soon find that it is not what he needs at all. What he needs is someone, or something, to take on; the harder the better. Next year he won't coach; he says he is going back to Gijon to sit on San Lorenzo beach. Where he will be bored.

Also read: No mercy for Messi as Juventus knock Barcelona out of Champions League


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