By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
The transition was supposed to be seamless. As he left for a sabbatical in the summer, Pep Guardiola passed the baton over to assistant and friend Tito Vilanova on the Barcelona bench. Little would change, it seemed. But fast forward nine months - and everything has.
Pep expressed his concern at Tito taking over, citing his friend's health issues but wishing him the best. And sadly, he was right to be worried as Vilanova suffered a relapse of his cancer in December and was forced to take time out to seek treatment.
Barcelona sat in a strong position, with a healthy advantage over fierce rivals Real Madrid in La Liga, while the Catalans had also advanced to the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey and the last 16 of the Champions League. So the club opted for a smooth switch as Jordi Roura was appointed interim coach. It seemed a logical decision and was one which the players supported at the time.
But Barca's season has been turned upside down in the space of a week by a disappointing defeat at AC Milan last Wednesday which leaves their Champions League hopes hanging on a thread, and elimination at home to Madrid in the Copa del Rey on Tuesday. Now, not only to do they miss Tito, but the players must be pining for Pep as well.
It's not Roura's fault. The former forward was editing videos of Barcelona's rivals up until recently, while offering support to Vilanova as assistant coach. He has since been thrown in at the deep end - and he is struggling to keep his head above water.
|BARCA'S NEXT THREE GAMES
|Real Madrid (a)||La Liga||2/03|
|Deportivo (h)||La Liga||9/03|
|AC Milan (h)||C. League||12/03|
Roura claims Vilanova is still the man in charge and says he is in constant contact with Tito, yet neither man was able to address the team's deficiencies in those two big defeats. It is a worrying trend and the players appear confused by the lack of leadership.
In five matches against Madrid this term, Barcelona have won only once, and the club are concerned at the side's inability to perform in the bigger matches - even under Vilanova.
La Liga is different. Barca's superiority is such that they have continued to win matches in the Primera Division. But whereas Guardiola always corrected his players after games (even if they were comprehensive victories) and kept them on their toes with constant pressure, Vilanova and Roura have opted only to praise the team. That has led to a certain complacency and, in the toughest tests, the side has lost some of its competitive edge.
Vilanova's cool, calm approach made him the ideal sidekick to Pep, yet as the main man his motivational skills are less effective and he has yet to give his squad a serious dressing down since taking over in the summer.
Roura, meanwhile, lacks the authority to rant at his players, while team selections have been predictable, causing added relaxation; the interim coach has sent out the supposed 'strongest' side on too many occasions and failed to freshen up his line-up as Guardiola used to. Those on the sidelines, like David Villa, have barely featured and are now lacking in motivation, while those starting know they will be in the team. Guardiola, as well as rotating his squad to great effect, would demand more from his men every week, regardless of whether they had won by one, five, or six goals. That pursuit of perfection brought huge rewards.
Training sessions have also altered. Under Guardiola, the last session before a match saw the starting side face a team lining up exactly like the forthcoming rival; how they played the ball out from the back, how they took free kicks, how they lined up across the pitch. No stone was left unturned.
With Tito, and now Roura, all of that has gone. Training involves much of the same work as before, with short, sharp rondos and other passing and positional drills, yet there is no clear plan like previously and players' mistakes are no longer corrected as they were with Pep. And those errors inevitably translate to the matches themselves.
On the pitch, the team has also lacked leadership. Carles Puyol is struggling to hold together a chaotic back four which has now conceded for the last 12 games and looks off the pace himself, while Xavi and Lionel Messi have not stepped up like leaders in the way the club had hoped, either. On an off the pitch, the team is in disarray.
Vilanova (who is said to be feeling guilty and responsible for Barca's poor recent results) is expected to be away until the end of this month, meaning he will miss the game at Madrid on Saturday in La Liga and the Champions League second leg at home to Milan in mid-March. By the time he comes back, his side may have just the league to play for.
In the meantime, Barca president Sandro Rosell has flown to New York for talks with his coach. There will be plenty to discuss.
Follow Ben Hayward on