By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
The world was watching. Barcelona's team emerged in a new kit, from a new player's tunnel - and with a new coach. This was no longer the Pep Team; it was the Tito Team. And they were looking to make an immediate impact.
As they took to the Camp Nou pitch for their Liga opener against Real Sociedad on Sunday night, Barca had already seen eternal enemies and title rivals Real Madrid held to a 1-1 draw at home to Valencia. Here was an early opportunity to gain some ground on their adversaries. But they also had a point to prove.
Vilanova has already admitted he cannot - and will not - compete with former coach and colleague Guardiola (who won 14 out of a possible 19 trophies in the previous four seasons), but he also knows the value of a strong start. And buoyed by Madrid's failure to beat Valencia, Tito's team turned it on.
Carles Puyol powered Barca into the lead with a header after just three minutes, and after Gonzalo 'Chori' Castro equalised with a crashing left-footed drive shortly afterwards, Lionel Messi struck twice in clinical fashion in the space of four minutes to put the game out of reach. Only a quarter of an hour had elapsed.
Pedro then made it 4-1 following a second assist from the impressive Cristian Tello, before a somewhat stale second half was brought to life by the return of David Villa, who made a long-awaited comeback from a broken leg sustained last December in the Club World Cup and marked the occasion with a goal as he hit home with a left-footed, angled half-volley following a cut-back from Andres Iniesta.
Looking rusty | Cristiano Ronaldo endured a frustrating evening against ValenciaLast season Barca had smashed five past Villarreal in their opening Liga fixture, but failed to win a fourth straight Primera Division title. In fact, Guardiola's side thrashed most of their rivals at Camp Nou in 2011-12, only to be brought down in the championship race by their indifferent away form. It was understandable, then, that Vilanova played down the importance of his side's two-point gain over Madrid - there is a long, long way to go yet.
"It was important to win, especially at home. I won't give any importance to Madrid's draw - there's so much of La Liga left to play," said Vilanova.
On Thursday, Barca and Madrid meet in the first leg of their Spanish Supercopa series and on this evidence, the Catalan club seem the better prepared of the two teams at this point.
Just before the Catalans kicked off, Madrid were held at home to Valencia in a game which witnessed a strangely subdued Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese looked well below his best on a muggy evening in the capital as Mourinho's men went ahead through Gonzalo Higuain, who fired home at the third time of asking after two good reflex saves from Diego Alves. But they saw their lead wiped out before the interval as Iker Casillas and Pepe clashed heads at a free-kick which Jonas converted with a header to restore parity.
There was also controversy in the second half as Roberto Soldado raced through, went past Casillas and poked the ball into the net, only to see his effort ruled out for a dubious offside call.
|It was important to win, especially at home. I won't give any importance to Madrid's draw - there's so much of La Liga left to play
- Tito Vilanova
Valencia impressed and defended diligently in their first official match under Mauricio Pellegrino against a Madrid outfit that, as Mourinho said later, should have won this game. But they could have lost it, too, and in the end a draw looked the right result.
With La Liga lost last term and doubts over his ability to emulate Guardiola, Vilanova knows just how important winning this Supercopa will be. Lose it and the voices of discontent will start to be heard; win it and the season is set up superbly for his side. Madrid remain favourites, but Sunday's show of strength will be a big boost for Barcelona.
So while it's extremely early to draw conclusions, Tito's team passed their first test. Mourinho's men, meanwhile, must do better if they are to claim the Supercopa or indeed repeat last season's league triumph. Thursday is likely to tell us much more about both teams.
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