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Vilanova illness rocks Barcelona and puts soccer and rivalry in perspective

The Catalan coach has suffered a relapse of his tumor and will need the support of his Camp Nou family as he bids to make a recovery

After the joy came heartbreak. Barcelona fans had been in a state of ecstasy on Tuesday following the news that club symbols Carles Puyol, Xavi and Lionel Messi had all agreed new contracts at the Catalan club. Then, later, it emerged that Eric Abidal was ready to return after his liver transplant. It was one of the best days imaginable for fans of the Blaugrana. Today, however, is surely one of the worst.

Reports in the Catalan press on Wednesday morning revealed coach Tito Vilanova had suffered a relapse of the tumor in his mouth which had kept him sidelined for a large part of the 2011-12 campaign. Barca cancelled its Christmas party for the media and president Sandro Rosell's address was called off. Tuesday had been cheerful for the Catalan club, but nobody was feeling festive now.

It remains unclear what will happen next. Vilanova had spoken just two days before at a 'Marathon against Cancer' about his battle to overcome the illness. Now he will need some time off to fight the disease once more, although reports that he will need to step down or be replaced remain premature.

IN NUMBERS
Tito at Barcelona
1 Tito has guided Barca to first place in La Liga, the only side still unbeaten in the whole of Europe (in league games)
2 Vilanova has lost just two matches as Barcelona coach, one in the Spanish Supercopa against Real Madrid, the other to Celtic in the Champions League
14 Vilanova spent four years as Pep Guardiola's assistant, winning 14 trophies for the Catalan club
15 Barca has won 15 of its 16 games in La Liga under Tito, the best-ever start by any side to a league season in Spain
23 In total, Vilanova's Barca has won 23 of the 27 official games he has coached in four competitions
Barca will do everything it can to help its coach recover, just as it has with Abidal and as it did last season with Vilanova himself. This time, though, there is a key difference. Then, Vilanova was an assistant to Pep Guardiola and although his presence on the bench was missed by the Catalan club, it was not like losing its first-team coach.

Now it is exactly that. Barca boasts the advantage of a healthy lead in La Liga, after its 4-1 win over Atletico Madrid on Sunday saw the club move nine points clear of Diego Simeone's side and 13 ahead of Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid.

The concern, however, will be the effect this devastating news will have on the players, the coaching staff and everyone else at the Catalan club.

It was just under a year ago that Guardiola picked up the Ballon d'Or award for 'Best Coach' and said, "This is for you, Tito", as he dedicated the prestigious prize to his friend following what had been a remarkable recovery.

But Guardiola had looked concerned at the press conference announcing his departure from Camp Nou in April, amid the news that Vilanova would replace him as Barca boss. "Life has handed this kid such a hard test," he said. "You don't know how much he suffered. But he got over it."

Everyone will hope he can again. Now, that is more important than anything else. The Catalan club will need to pull together once more, on the pitch and off it, to stay strong amid the news that nobody wanted to hear. At Christmas, a time for family and togetherness, Barcelona will rally around its popular coach and later, during the winter break and as it becomes clear exactly how long Tito may be out of action, there will be time to consider exactly what to do next.

In the meantime, Vilanova's relapse puts everything in perspective; the whole rivalry between Barca and Madrid, Messi and Ronaldo, La Liga and everything else pales into insignificance compared to this illness. Nevertheless, now more than ever, the club's players will want to win trophies for their coach and emulate Guardiola at the end of the season by saying: "Tito, this one's for you."

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