By STEVE DOUGLAS, AP Sports Writer
Diego Simeone was working in Argentina in the early years of his coaching career when he requested to attend some training sessions at Barcelona, led at the time by Pep Guardiola.
Barcelona was the pre-eminent club in world soccer, revolutionising the game between 2008-12 with its “tiki-taka” passing style favored by Guardiola and mastered by the likes of Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández.
It wasn’t for Simeone, though.
“We talked,” Guardiola has recounted, “and he told me, ‘I don’t like this. I don’t feel it.’”
Simeone, a combative and hard-working midfielder as a player, saw the beauty of soccer in a different way and would come to represent the antithesis of Guardiola and his beautiful approach.
A clash of styles soon took hold in Spain, when Simeone moved back to Europe to become coach of Atlético Madrid in 2011 — a few months after Barcelona won the Champions League for the second time and in mesmeric fashion.
More than a decade later, the two coaches remain at the top of the game, with Simeone still the embodiment of a rugged and uncompromising Atlético team and Guardiola now attempting to turn soccer into an art form at Manchester City.
City and Atlético go head-to-head in the Champions League quarterfinals on Tuesday — a first competitive meeting between the teams, if not the men leading them.
Yet given Guardiola and Simeone are two of the sport’s most storied current coaches, the fact that they have only come up against each other three times is as surprising as it is refreshing.
The most recent was in the Champions League in 2016, when Atlético eliminated Guardiola’s highly fancied Bayern Munich team on away goals after a pair of tightly contested legs in the semifinals. It’s one of Guardiola’s many painful exits in the Champions League since his last title, in 2011.
The only other time Guardiola and Simeone faced each other was in February 2012, a few months before Guardiola quit Barcelona. The Catalan team won 2-1 in the Spanish league.
One goal was the difference in all three games. Expect more of the same over the next week, even if City starts out as the favorite.
“It will be difficult to impose our game against them,” Guardiola said of Atlético.
He has used Atlético’s elimination of Manchester United in the last 16 as a guide for what team should expect.
“The first 15-20 minutes against United, United couldn’t breathe,” Guardiola said.
And it’s that ability to frustrate that sets Atlético apart. Even if it is achieved by using what’s often perceived as unsportsmanlike tactics that have infuriated opposition coaches and players over the years.
“It is frustrating at times,” Liverpool defender Andrew Robertson said of Atlético in 2020 when his team was eliminated by the Spanish club, “but it is not going to change.”
There was a period, particularly in the 2020-21 season, when Simeone tried to turn Atlético into more of an attack-minded team, using the qualities of forwards like Luis Suárez and João Félix.
When it comes to the crunch, Simeone typically returns to his more destructive and pragmatic game plan and that is likely to be on show at City’s Etihad Stadium for the first leg on Tuesday.
As for Guardiola, he is wedded to his possession-based philosophy.
“Cholo’s teams will play the way he wants them to play,” Guardiola once said, referring to Simeone’s nickname, “and my teams will play the way I want them to play.”
It’s what makes the upcoming double-header between the current English and Spanish champions so fascinating.
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80
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