Continuity amid Vilanova adversity could push Barcelona to greater heights

The coach will undergo an operation on Thursday, but the Catalans' philosophy will remain intact thanks to a capable stand-in and a group of players familiar with pulling through
By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer

Life without Tito Vilanova begins away to Valladolid in the Primera Division on Saturday, but the road to recovery starts at home for both coach and club.

Barcelona's sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta spoke both elegantly and eloquently on Wednesday, as the Catalan club met the media following the sad news that Vilanova had suffered a cancer relapse and would need an operation on Thursday to remove a new tumour growth.

And the message was clear: "Tito is our coach." There would be no talk of a permanent replacement, no return for Pep Guardiola, not even an official interim. "Tito is the man in charge and that won't change," Zubizarreta explained.
Jordi Roura came through the youth team at Barcelona, but saw his career as a player restricted by injury.

After suffering a serious problem against AC Milan in the Uefa Super Cup in 1989, he went on to make just 10 appearances for the club and eventually retired at the age of 26.

But as a graduate of La Masia, he knows the Barcelona philosophy perfectly and was one of the main analysts of the club's rivals during Pep Guardiola's reign, alongside Vilanova.

Roura would watch games from a video room and prepare reports on future opponents for Guardiola and Vilanova, helping the two men to make tactical decisions.

Tito and Roura are good friends and the club are confident the new man can make a positive impression while Vilanova is away from first-team duties.

Roura was one of the men responsible for the tactical reconstruction of the team under Guardiola and he also has experience coaching in Japan, alongside former Barca boss Carles Rexach.

Pilar Suarez | Spain

For the moment, however, it has to change. On Sunday, at Valladolid, Jordi Roura will step in as Vilanova recovers from his operation, which is likely to see him spend three or four days in hospital. "Tito will be watching and he has told us we have to win," the legendary goalkeeper explained. "But today football doesn't matter - our priority is Tito."

That, of course, is logical, but Barca matters to many millions across Catalunya, Spain and the rest of the world. "When Saturday comes, we will want to win and we will set out to win," the Basque added.

And they will do so with their philosophy very much intact. Roura, like Vilanova and Guardiola before him, is a fellow La Masia graduate and a man who has been part of the project since it started under Pep and Tito in the summer of 2008. His promotion is a natural progression and, of course, he will remain in close contact with the first-team coach.

So Barca, who recently fielded 11 players from La Masia for over an hour in a Primera Division clash at Levante, are increasingly looking to their famous academy to fill their coaching voids as well - albeit hopefully only on a temporary basis this time.

News of Tito's tumour had emerged at Barca after a medical check-up for the coach on Tuesday, the same day another cancer victim at the Catalan club, Eric Abidal, had been given the all-clear to resume training following his liver transplant.

"Yesterday gave us many reasons to be joyful," explained Zubizarreta, in reference to Abidal's return and the contract renewals of Carles Puyol, Xavi and Lionel Messi. "Today the sun has gone in. But it will come out again."

Vilanova's condition is less severe than first thought and Barca even revealed in their official statement earlier on Wednesday that the Catalan coach could combine his chemotherapy treatment with light work in the six weeks following the operation.

However, they would do well to exercise caution in what is a highly stressful job at the best of times. There is no reason to rush a return, especially as Roura seems a suitable stand-in and given the tactical nous and experience of Barca's ultra-successful and seasoned stars.

The key will be just how those players react to the enormous emotional blow that Tito's latest illness represents. In La Liga, however, Barca sit pretty on top of the tree with a healthy nine-point lead (and 13 over Real Madrid) after 16 rounds of the championship, which gives the team a comfortable cushion ahead of testing times.

These players have triumphed before in adversity and Vilanova's condition could see squad solidarity push the Catalan club to yet greater heights in 2012-13. That was the case during Abidal's absence in 2010-11, when the defender returned right at the end of the season and ended up lifting the Champions League trophy at Wembley after a 3-1 success over Manchester United.

The final is at Wembley once again this year, and a triumph for Tito's team would be some story.

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