TITO VILANOVA WILL lead Barcelona into unknown territory in the coming season as the Catalans attempt to progress after four successful years under Pep Guardiola.
The pressure will be intense as the largely unknown coach takes over a legacy of 14 titles in 4 seasons left by his friend and colleague.
He goes into the new season looking to stem a resurgent Madrid, who finished nine points clear of the Catalans as La Liga champions last time around.
Vilanova trained as a youth with Guardiola at the club before the two took separate paths as players, Guardiola being by far the more successful, before they came together again in 2007 to take charge of the club’s B side. A year later and Vilanova was Guardiola’s assistant as he took over the first team and a golden era in the club’s history began.
The naming of Vilanova is one of continuity at a club proud of instilling a unique passing style of play at all levels. How much of that success over those four years can be attributed to Vilanova is impossible to gage but now his time has arrived. The home-grown nature of Vilanova’s appointment is an approach adopted throughout the club.
The only addition so far to their squad is the return of full-back Jordi Alba from Valencia for a fee of €14million. Alba was rejected by the club as a schoolboy and continues a trend in recent years whereby Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique have returned after progressing elsewhere.
One player to leave is midfielder Seydou Keita. Adored by Guardiola for his versatility, the Malian midfielder has gone to play in China leaving Vilanova with the problem how to replace him. A number of possibilities including Athletic Bilbao’s Javi Martinez and Arsenal’s Alex Song have been mooted but as yet no signing has been made.
A chronic injury list was cited as badly affecting Barca last season. The most important loss was that of forward David Villa in December who suffered a broken tibia as his side were crowned FIFA World Club Cup winners.
Villa’s return was delayed and he failed to make it in time to lead Spain’s attack at Euro 2012. He has managed one pre-season game in a 2-0 win at Dynamo Bucharest and his fitness will be key to Barca’s start.
In his absence Barca relied heavily on Lionel Messi’s 50 league goals and ran out of striking options towards the end of last season as they attempted to unlock teams without a recognised forward. After the game in Bucharest Vilanova admitted as much and revealed he was pleased with the standard his players had reached.
“We missed Villa last season, he’s very important to us, but the team is at a good level and we are going well, we have had a a good four weeks training together and that has helped us,” he said.
If Villa is not able to hit the ground running the early form of Chilean Alexis Sanchez will be vital in his second full season at the club. Messi will return in possibly the best condition ever after scoring five goals in four games in pre-season. Without a World Cup, Copa America or Olympic Games to play for the Argentine star completed all but one of his side’s games and will be raring to go after his first significant rest in a number of years.
Club captain Carles Puyol and midfielder Thiago Alcantara both missed out on international duty at Euro 2012 and the London Olympics through injury and will also be keen to impress early on.
With player of the tournament at Euro 2012 Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez still pulling the strings in midfield it is difficult to see how Vilanova will greatly change Barca’s successful passing style.
Five games in the first 15 days of the season including a double-header Spanish Supercup clash with Madrid will go some way to revealing how Vilanova will cope with the extra responsability.
Last years Supercup clash was notorious for the spat between Vilanova and Jose Mourinho that saw the Portuguese coach poke the then Barca assistant in the eye.
This time around it will be Vilanova who will be attempting to make it one in the eye for Mourinho.