Barca fans relishing greatness under Guardiola

BARCELONA - There is a powerful sense around Barcelona that the club may be on the verge of one of the most successful eras in its 110-year existence.

Barcelona lead the Primera Liga by four points from Real Madrid with five matches left, play Athletic Bilbao in the King's Cup final and are the only non-English team in the last four of the Champions League for the second season in a row.

Chelsea are their next hurdle as Barcelona bid for a third triumph in Europe's top club competition. If they reach next month's final in Rome, they will meet holders Manchester United or Arsenal.

Barca went out of the competition with a whimper last season, beaten 1-0 on aggregate by United, but coach Pep Guardiola has built a side in his first season in charge that has the fans dreaming of another golden era.

"There is absolutely no doubt that they have what it takes to be truly great," said Barca fan Cipriano as he watched Guardiola drive away from the club's training grounds on the city's outskirts in his white Range Rover.

The 65-year-old retiree, who was born in the region of Extremadura and moved to Barcelona in 1963, said this side was better than Johan Cruyff's "Dream Team" that won the European Cup with Guardiola in their midfield in 1992.

"There is no other club in the world that can play like they can and all they are missing now are the titles," he added.

GATHERING STORM

The 38-year-old Guardiola has lived and breathed Barca for most of his life, coming through the youth ranks and forming a key part of Cruyff's all-conquering side that won the Spanish title four years in a row from 1991 to 1994.

His former team mates, including Bulgarian striker Hristo Stoichkov, Dane Michael Laudrup and Dutchman Ronald Koeman, have given way to the likes of Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto'o, Thierry Henry and the superb midfield pair of Xavi and Andres Iniesta.

The quintet has been at the heart of Barca's success this season and the catalyst for a remarkable 136 goals in 51 matches in all competitions.

Luis Martin, a football correspondent for Spain's El Pais newspaper who has been covering Barca since 1988, said Guardiola's side could not be compared with Cruyff's until they had proved themselves by winning titles.

"For the moment they have won nothing," he told Reuters. "But they are a more solid unit than the Dream Team and have more hunger. They always want to win."

Martin said that even if Guardiola failed to add to the club's trophy cabinet this season, he would be unlikely to suffer the hasty sacking that is often the fate of coaches in Spain's top league.

"Barca have to win in a certain way, playing exciting, attacking football," he said. "But they have more patience with their coaches than most of the other clubs."