Messi in fine form & Villa returns, but jury is still out on Tito Vilanova's Barcelona

The Catalans eased to victory thanks in part to an early Messi strike, while their Spanish striker also made his eagerly anticipated comeback, yet doubts remain over the new coach
By Charlie Scott

Barcelona's final pre-season friendly against Dinamo Bucharest did not tell us anything we didn't already know about Tito Vilanova's side: Lionel Messi continued his hot run of form in front of goal by netting the opener (his fifth in a pre-season), Sergio Busquets and Xavi monopolised possession in the centre of the pitch, and Jordi Alba proved he can be the Spanish, left-footed Dani Alves that the club have been yearning for for years.

The match was bookended by Barca goals - Messi's driven effort in the fourth minute and substitute Ibrahim Afellay's casual lobbed finish in the 92nd - but it is more likely to be remembered for the long-awaited return of David Villa, the striker who has missed the last nine months after suffering a broken leg in the Club World Cup semi-final against Al Sadd in December of last year.

Villa's surprise involvement as a substitute late in the second half brought the crowd and both benches to their feet, and provided a silver lining to an otherwise tepid performance.

Barca's Romanian opponents struggled in front of their own fans at the National Arena in Bucharest and failed to carve out any real clear-cut chances. Victor Valdes was forced into making only one decent save, from Marius Tucudean's firm header shortly after half-time.


(W) 2-1
(W) 8-0
(D) 2-2
(D) 0-0
(W) 2-0
The result was a positive one for the Liga runners-up, though, and the Blaugrana have now made it through their five-match pre-season unbeaten, having secured victories against Dinamo, Hamburg and Raja Casablanca, and draws against Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain, winning the two latter matches on penalties.

Yet none of their five opponents have really tested Vilanova's men, which means we are yet to really see what this side, under their new coach, are really capable of. They are yet to shine under Vilanova, but, so far, they haven't needed to.

The only change from Pep Guardiola's squad that finished the last campaign is the addition of Alba, the full-back who attracted praise from across the world for his performances in the European Championship as La Roja retained their title.

It seems fitting that the first signing of Vilanova's reign is Alba when you consider that one of the first new faces to arrive when Guardiola took the reigns in the summer of 2008 was the man who dominates the opposite flank to Alba, Dani Alves.

It is also interesting to consider how Guardiola started his hugely successful stint in charge of the Catalan side, and compare it with the pre-season Vilanova has just overseen.

Guardiola led his side to six straight victories after taking over, averaging over four goals a game during that pre-season, albeit against weaker opposition than the current crop of players have faced. Against Hibernian and Dundee United, for example, Pep's men won 6-0 and 5-1 respectively.

Their free-scoring start to the 2008-09 season was soon put in perspective, however, as a comfortable 4-0 first leg win over Wisla Krakow at Camp Nou in the third qualifying round of the Champions League was followed up with a 1-0 loss in the return match in Poland. They also lost the first match of their Liga campaign, 1-0 to newly promoted side Numancia.

Yet, at the end of the season, Guardiola had led the club to the first treble in Spanish football history, triumphing in La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League.

It remains to be seen what Vilanova can achieve, and it will be impossible to say until this latest Barcelona side have competed in a series of competitive matches. As Guardiola's start showed, you can be brilliant in pre-season and then have trouble immediately transferring that level into competitive matches.

Alternatively, a club may enjoy a fairly average pre-season and then explode out of the blocks by the time the domestic and European competitions get under way.

Patience is a virtue. Early signs, however, mean the jury is still very much out on Tito's team.

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