Barcelona connection means Guardiola will love return to face Madrid with City

It was only a little yellow ribbon but the connotations were there. Pep Guardiola was pinning his heart to his jumper and making a point whenever he spoke to the press.

The tiny symbol represented support for the activists and politicians that were imprisoned over Catalan independence protests — a cause that Guardiola has backed regularly in the past.

The fact he felt the need to wear it in Manchester, which felt like a world apart from what was happening in the region and the battle with the government in Madrid for independence, tells you a lot about Guardiola.

Guardiola is from Santdepor in the centre of Catalonia but his soul lives for Barcelona, the most populous city in the region. His playing career began in the city and peaked there too.

When it came to becoming a manager, there was only one place for him to begin. First the Barcelona B team and then the first team, where he achieved more than any other manager has over the four-year spell he had in charge.

Which is all to say that Guardiola is a Barcelona man. He buys into the notion that they are Mes Que Un Club. And, the opposite definitely holds true too — that Real Madrid have little affection for him.

Years after that ribbon gesture, his Manchester City team have been drawn against Real in the Champions League last 16.

It will feel like a mini-Clasico, given Guardiola has done more than anyone else to put Barcelona on the same footballing footing as Real, both as a player and manager.

Where Real had won the European Cup six times by the end of the 1960s, Barcelona were really no more than a successful domestic side. Their trophies in the Cup Winners’ Cup and Fairs Cup did not match up to their great rivals.

By the early 1990s, they had still not captured the European Cup.

And then, in 1992, they finally had their hands on the biggest prize in club football. The Dream Team, managed by Johan Cruyff, won the competition at Wembley.

There was Guardiola, the captain of the team, the man that Cruyff built the entire side around. As much as Real were not playing, the win for Barcelona will have hurt them.

Then when Guardiola returned as the manager in 2008, it kick-started the current era where, more often than not, they end up as the winners of La Liga.

Because while both Real and Barcelona are often mentioned as the big two in Spain, the truth is that the team from the Nou Camp have won the title in eight of the last 11 seasons. Before then, they were almost 10 behind their rivals.

That began in 2008-09, when Guardiola won the title, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League, sweeping all before him in his first season in the dugout.

Towards the end of that season, he laid down a marker. At the Bernabeu his Barcelona side crushed Real 6-2.

Guardiola was delighted. ‘It is not easy to win at the Bernabeu and winning like this against a team of Real’s calibre is incredible. It is a memorable night,’ he said at the time.

‘It is one of the happiest days of my footballing life. I am so happy because we have made a lot of people happy.’

It still holds a special place for him today. Asked earlier this year whether City’s Premier League win was his best title yet, he said: ‘Well, I wouldn’t say that because the first league with Barcelona, when we won 6-2 at the Bernabeu, was incredible for me.

‘I was in my first year as coach in my hometown, with the club of my heart, with the club I love the most.’

After that 6-2 win, he then captured the title in the next two seasons and the big one again in 2010-11 as he established his Barcelona side as arguably the greatest club side of all time. He lost just once to Real in those three years, the Copa del Rey final in 2011.

Real had to turn to Jose Mourinho to drive Guardiola out of Spain. The Portuguese won the battle off the pitch and took the title in 2011-12. During that period, Guardiola lost against Real for the first time as Barcelona manager – a 2-1 defeat at the Nou Camp as the title went to the capital.

But Guardiola still held a record — he had never lost at the Bernabeu as a manager.

That changed when he returned with Bayern Munich in 2014. They lost the first leg of their semi-final 1-0 at the Bernabeu, his first defeat as a manager there in eight visits.

He has not been back since, and while Real later gave his Bayern side a hiding at the Allianz Arena, no one of a Los Blancos persuasion will view him with anything but a level of fear.

Without Guardiola, it is arguable that Barcelona would never have got near their great rivals. If Alex Ferguson saw himself as responsible for knocking Liverpool off their ‘f****** perch’ in England, then Guardiola helped Barcelona climb onto Real’s.

Real have long had perceived connections with the establishment in Spain, going back to General Franco’s era when Catalan identity was suppressed. The truth is more complicated than that but most would view the ribbon as a direct line to that era.

On a footballing level, Guardiola, the boy, the man, the player and the manager, has proven adept at beating Real. Whether it’s his love of Catalonia or just his desire to test himself and overcome the best, he has a knack for knocking them down.

There will be no ribbon pinned to his chest this time but it does not matter. Whether or not there’s a symbol there, everyone knows what he will be feeling in his heart when he walks out onto the touchline at the Bernabeu.