Even if Lionel Messi and his Barcelona teammates had no coach to guide them, you would think long and hard about betting against perhaps the greatest collection of players assembled by one club. Their success is built on foundations so solid it has seemingly become self-perpetuating, almost capable of taking care of itself.
So Messi & Co. will weather the absence, hopefully brief and temporary, of Tito Vilanova while he undergoes chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Even if the coach’s recovery from the recurrence of a tumor on a saliva gland takes longer than expected, his team is plenty strong enough to keep winning without him, to wrest the Spanish league title from Real Madrid and to muscle past AC Milan in March to advance deep into the final rounds of the Champions League and even win that, too.
For such an astoundingly talented and well-blended team to underperform in either of those competitions in 2013 would be shocking, regardless of who is coaching it. The acid disappointment of losing La Liga to Madrid and falling to Chelsea in the Champions League semifinal in 2012 should be motivation enough for the players, without needing Vilanova to remind them they should do better next year.
Barcelona is less coach-centric than other teams, because its methods, tactics, philosophy and identity are woven into its fabric, not dependent on any single personality. At Manchester United, Real Madrid or Arsenal, the imprint of managers Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger is evident. If those strong leaders took protracted time off, there would be probing questions about how their players might cope without them. But only a lengthy injury for Messi, its record-setting goal scorer, would spark grave doubts about Barcelona’s chances of success in the months ahead. At Barca, the players are for the most part brighter stars than Vilanova, their coach. But at Real Madrid, Man United and Arsenal, it’s mostly the other way round.
The center of Barcelona’s universe isn’t a person but a training academy, La Masia. That is where Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol and other vertebrae in the backbone of Barcelona’s first team were drenched in the club’s traditions. Once housed in an 18th-century Catalan farmhouse, the academy is now in a modern five-story building located at Barca’s training grounds on the outskirts of the city. Vilanova is a La Masia alumni. So is the man he replaced as coach at the end of last season, Pep Guardiola. So is Vilanova’s assistant coach, Jordi Roura.
Roura will warm Vilanova’s seat and direct the team while he is on sick leave but won’t formally replace him as coach — a nice touch that makes Barcelona look like a club with class, which sticks by its own through thick and thin.
Barcelona said that after surgery Thursday on his parotid gland and a few days in hospital, Vilanova might be able to coach during his expected six weeks of chemo and radiation treatment. Until he’s back, Barcelona sports director Andoni Zubizarreta said the team was in “great hands” with Roura. A former Barcelona player under coach Johan Cruyff, Roura worked on Guardiola’s staff, studying rival teams, before becoming Vilanova’s assistant coach.
La Masia’s production line of success and talent gives Barcelona continuity in difficult times like these. While other clubs head-hunt managers, chopping and changing in search of success, Barcelona’s deep wells of experience have enabled it to recruit in-house for leadership since Guardiola replaced Dutchman Frank Rijkaard as coach in 2008.
Even though Vilanova is undefeated in the Spanish league this season and has led the team to the best league start ever by any team in Spain, his sudden absence mid-season shouldn’t provoke a slump and might barely be noticed on the field. Tactics and lineups didn’t change massively when Guardiola handed over the reins to Vilanova, nor will they while Roura is caretaking. Barcelona calls itself “more than a club.” It is also more than any one coach.
“Few things have changed,” midfielder Xavi said Dec. 13, talking about the handover from Guardiola to Vilanova. “Everything has stayed the same.”
It was Guardiola who once described Barcelona soccer so succinctly: “Take the ball, pass the ball, take the ball, pass the ball.” It is, of course, more complex than that. But Messi and his teammates have for years now been honing Barcelona’s passing game into an art. They could probably find each other with their eyes shut and definitely with Roura on the coach’s bench.
Barcelona has a nine-point league lead over Atletico Madrid and a 13-point jump on Real Madrid after just 16 games — a gap so whopping that Atletico coach Diego Simeone said Spain’s top league has become “boring.” Although this won’t be how he or the players think, Roura can afford to lose a few games before he will come under sustained pressure for wins. His first match is at Valladolid in the league on Saturday, Barcelona’s last game of 2012.
Barcelona’s announcement this week that Messi, Xavi and Puyol all agreed to renew their contracts also gives the team long-term stability and removes an issue that potentially could have distracted the players and Roura.
Since last month, Barcelona has again been able to field Puyol and Pique in defense together after both recovered from injuries. David Villa also looks like the dangerous forward he used to be before eight months out with a broken leg. And Messi, well, how can more praise be heaped on a player who has scored a record 90 goals in 2012?
So no excuses.
Barcelona should keep winning while Vilanova gets better.
He surely wouldn’t settle for anything less.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
More Related Stories
- Cannes: Ryan Gosling's new movie draws the boo-birds
- Radio host tweets rape joke, blames journalists for reporting on it
- Juror responds to Joe Francis' insults with thoughtful email
- New track from the Lonely Island features Solange Knowles, semicolons
- Amazon introduces fan fiction publishing platform
- Naomi Watts, "Argo," "Wonderstone" among bizarre Teen Choice Awards nominees
- Imprisoned Pussy Riot member declares hunger strike
- The camp-free "Behind the Candelabra"
- Justin Bieber will destroy you if you live-tweet his parties
- Marc Maron on Twitter feud with Michael Ian Black: "We have an understanding"
- "Girls Gone Wild" creator Joe Francis to jury: "You should be euthanized"
- Ai Weiwei releases heavy metal music video
- Actually, Beyoncé is a feminist
- Marc Maron and Michael Ian Black's epic Twitter battle
- Cannes: Directing 101 with James Franco
- Welcome to the jungle: The definitive oral history of '80s metal
- Burt Bacharach opens up on daughter's suicide
- Steven Spielberg to produce "Halo" television series
- Amazon set to launch fine-art gallery
- Twitter torches Dan Brown's "Inferno"
- Brad Pitt keeps breaking his silence on how boring marriage to Jennifer Aniston was
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11