By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
"Hopefully," said Jordi Roura after Barcelona's 3-1 win over Rayo Vallecano on Sunday, "this will be my last match in the dugout." Tito Vilanova is expected to return from cancer treatment in New York next weekend and take over the reins as his stand-in steps aside after the international break. And if Sunday's game is indeed Roura's final fixture as interim coach, his lasting legacy may just be the Lionel Messi-David Villa connection.
Villa was left out of the starting side as Barcelona lost at AC Milan late last month at San Siro and was also absent in the initial XI for the Copa del Rey Clasico clash against Real Madrid, which ended in defeat and elimination in the semi-finals. His extended exclusion in the big games, more difficult to contemplate with every passing week and especially after a promising performance alongside Messi in the 2-1 win over Sevilla prior to that first Clasico, divided opinion among press and fans in Catalunya; it was either ill-advised or illogical - depending on whom you asked. Everyone wanted the Asturian in the team, even Messi.
Yet Roura, via Vilanova, continued to persist with less-effective forwards like Pedro and Alexis Sanchez, while Cesc Fabregas enjoyed a charmed life in midfield despite some below-par displays and Andres Iniesta was promoted to the forward role on the left - not his best position.
When it really mattered, however, he was finally selected to face Milan, scoring in his side's most impressive display of the season - last Tuesday's epic 4-0 win which overturned the tie at Camp Nou. Suddenly, Barcelona had found their plan B - and it had been staring them in the face all along.
Rayo defended well on Sunday and gave a creditable account of themselves at Camp Nou, yet they were ultimately undone by the intelligent movement of Villa and Messi. When one dropped deep, the other could be found further forward, and vice versa. Villa can look uncomfortable when he is playing on the left flank, but in this system he has no fixed position and is more of a roaming forward than a left-sided attacker. He and Messi dovetailed to perfection on Sunday.
It was a run inside from the left which saw the Spain striker open the scoring after 25 minutes, when he latched onto an inch-perfect pass from Messi and played a clinical curler beyond Ruben into the top corner. How happy he looked.
And he had every right to be. Having worked incredibly hard to return from his broken tibia which kept him out for nine months, Villa has had to battle further still to regain his place in this team.
But there was more to come. The Asturian set up the Argentine for Barca's second as he returned the favour before half-time, and 12 minutes into the second period he held up the ball brilliantly on a devastating counter-attack and fed Messi for a superb solo strike from the Argentine. Villa had been on the ground when he played the pass to his team-mate. There were no complaints, no theatrics - his sole aim was to connect with Messi. And Leo, who has now incredibly scored in the last 18 rounds of La Liga, did the rest.
The ensuing embraces showed that the pair are in tune and in harmony both on the pitch and off it, with reports of a rift between them seeming greatly exaggerated. "I have a heard many times that they don't get on," Roura revealed afterwards. "But it has always seemed an absurd thing to me. Their relationship is the same now as it was a few months ago - very good."
Roura also expressed his delight at the pair's rapport on the pitch. "It's a great joy and we are very happy they are so comfortable together."
For his part, Villa seems thrilled to be involved again and is determined to take his chance after a difficult last few months. "I am happy to have participated in the three goals with Messi," he told reporters after the game.
Vilanova will be even happier. The Barca boss is back next weekend and should take charge of his side's next fixture, away to Celta Vigo at the end of the month, before the Champions League quarter-final tie against Paris Saint-Germain.
Just a week ago, Tito will have been fearing a potential crisis on his arrival after poor results against Madrid (twice) and Milan. Now, with Champions League progress secured and La Liga all but won, it is likely to be a happy homecoming for the man in charge. And Messi's connection with a rejuvenated Villa represents the perfect present for the Catalan coach ahead of what will be a rousing return to Camp Nou.
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