WFC: Guardiola the eternal optimist despite loss, injury

Barcelona head coach Josep Guardiola

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LANDOVER, Md. — Barcelona will play for their first trophy of the season in just 15 days against Real Madrid in the first leg of the Spanish Supercopa. But even after losing yet another player to injury, manager Pep Guardiola is still glowing with optimism after a 2-1 loss to Manchester United on Saturday night, the first defeat of the preseason for the Blaugrana.

“So, so, so, so happy for the performance from tonight,” Guardiola said in English during his postgame press conference. “It’s a pity for the little injury from [Ibrahim] Afellay. But the rest, the young players and the players that have more experience like Seydou [Keita] and [Éric Abidal], they played very, very good. We are so, so happy about our performance and we will try to recover as soon as possible Xavi, Gerard [Piqué] and the rest of the players and try to play a little bit better every time in Miami and Dallas.”

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Afellay pulled up lame with four minutes left in the first half, with an injury the club later confirmed to be a small tear in his left hamstring. In addition to the Dutch international’s setback, FC Barcelona were forced to play without midfield director Xavi, who returned to full training sessions on Friday, as well as defenders Maxwell (abdominal), Piqué (calf) and Carles Puyol (knee).

Guardiola was so short on players that he resorted to playing Mexican midfielder Jonathan dos Santos at right back, because he claims he didn’t have anyone to play the position.

Due to the slew of absences, the defending UEFA Champions League winners gave way to nine academy products, with substitute left back Iván Balliu making the errant pass that led to Michael Owen’s game-winning goal for Manchester United. According to Guardiola, these were not necessarily the club’s first-choice youth talents, given the players Barcelona have contributed to Spain for the current edition of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup and the Under-19 European championships, where Spain advanced to the final.

“We played many, many young players. We have absences and we’re playing against teams like Bayern, Internacional and Manchester United and they‘re doing well,” Guardiola said in defense of his youth movement. “They have played against [Ryan] Giggs, [Nemanja] Vidic and [Michael] Owen and Nani and [Wayne] Rooney, and this is an experience that today they have had and will serve them well in the youth teams.”

It was an overall understated performance by Barcelona on the night but one that did not preoccupy Guardiola. His team held possession comfortably but lacked the ability to get behind a sturdy Manchester United back line. Barça’s coach pointed to the jet lag, heat, humidity and heavy legs from daily double sessions as chief factors for the lack of intensity, especially in the first half.

Needing an individual moment of brilliance to get on the board, Barcelona got it from their hottest player of the moment, Thiago Alcántara, who scored a stunning goal in the 70th minute on a shot which veered into the upper right corner to momentarily tie the score at 1-1. That’s now four goals in the last three preseason games for the Italian-born Thiago, who is vying for a permanent spot on the senior side this year.

“Every loss hurts, even if it's a friendly," Thiago said after the match. "You play to win. We played a good game and all we were missing is the ability to score."

“He’s in a phase where everything he shoots he puts it in,” Guardiola said. “But little by little, we have to go little by little. He’s a first-team player and to be here he must have qualities. But he’s young and has a large margin for improvement and constantly getting better.”

Improvement is what Guardiola will be looking for when his team takes on CD Guadalajara at Sun Life Stadium in Miami on August 3 (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2 and Galavisión).  

“Many players are here and injured,” he said. “It’s difficult to make an impression but they [injured players] are coming back and going in a good way and we are going to try win the next game. We are going to compete as good and as well as we know and we are going to [have] what I feel right now a good season.”