It's Tito's time now
Tito Vilanova looks cool, calm and collected as he prepares for his first competitive game as Barcelona head coach at the Camp Nou against Real Sociedad in their La Liga opener next Sunday, but it would be strange if he were not at least a little nervous. Josep Guardiola's four seasons in charge of Barcelona brought 14 trophies from the 19 competitions entered, including three La Liga titles and two Champions Leagues, as well as widespread acclaim as perhaps the best side in the history of the game. Even though Vilanova was there throughout as Guardiola's assistant, it is difficult to think of a harder act to follow in football.
Rarely had the success of one team - especially one including talent like three-time FIFA Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi and world and European champions Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta - been so associated with its coach. This was Guardiola's team or, more popularly, the 'Pep' team. That's why there was such consternation among Barca fans when Guardiola - after agonising over whether to sign a contract extension through most of last season, announced in April that he was definitely stepping down. It was not just supporters who were disappointed - Xavi and Iniesta had led a chorus of Blaugrana players calling on Pep to stay, while Messi was so distraught he could not join his team-mates at the press conference when the decision was announced.
Aware of this, Barcelona president Sandro Rosell and Andoni Zubizarreta decided to demonstrate clearly that as little as possible was going to change at the Camp Nou. Vilanova was promoted from within, with the idea pushed that even though their burnt-out leader was leaving, success would continue as before.
"Tito represents our play, our ideas, our preparation," Zubizarreta said that day. "Nobody from outside can do this. Who do we have in-house? It was an easy decision. He is different to Pep, that is clear, but we will work with the same idea, the same profile. Talking with Guardiola, too, we saw we should take this direction."
Listening to Zubizarreta, the logic seemed clear, but even so nobody had seen the decision coming at the time. On the day there was widespread shock in the Camp Nou press room, and among Barcelona fans worldwide. This was partly because Vilanova had just months previously undergone a serious operation to remove a tumour from his parotid gland, but mostly because few really saw him as leadership material. He was Guardiola's shadow, a trusted counsellor and friend, but not a potential No. 1. Until Mourinho had poked him in the eye during last summer's Supercopa game, not many outside Barca's core fanbase knew he was.
Four months down the line, the initial surprise has matured into expectation, but we're still waiting to find out who Tito is and what kind of head coach he will be. Little has been given away in pre-season, as his early press conferences have stuck closely to the Guardiola line - a relaxed and confident approach, while giving little away. Observers have yet to learn about his wider personality or views on the game. As with Guardiola - and Athletic's Marcelo Bielsa - there have been no expansive one-to-one interviews with favoured journalists or publications. He has not looked overawed, however, showing a nice line in dry wit from his first public appearance of the season when he observed: "I know there will be comparisons with Guardiola, and I know I will come out of them all a loser."
There have also been few outward signs of change among the playing staff at the Camp Nou. No big players have followed Guardiola out of the club, with Vilanova moving quickly to confidently assure raiding right-back Dani Alves that he was a key part of the club's future plans. The side's biggest problem position - left-back - was intelligently filled by snapping up 23-year-old Jordi Alba from Valencia for a bargain €14 million.
Seydou Keita has also left, but he was a squad player and his physical power in midfield could soon be replaced. Arsenal fans who remember the various Cesc Fabregas sagas will recognise that Barca's transfer tactics have not changed with Guardiola's departure: a string of players last week talked publicly of their admiration for Alex Song and the Catalan press seemed very well informed about negotiations taking place behind the scenes.
Vilanova's key challenge now could be that just following the Guardiola template is not enough. Barca were not at their best for long periods of last season, especially away from home. Messi often seemed to be dragging them through games with his brilliance, and even 50 La Liga goals from the Argentine could not stop Madrid claiming the title.
Mourinho's side were more consistent throughout, and then proved themselves deserving La Liga champions by coming to the Camp Nou in April and winning much more comprehensively than the 2-1 scoreline suggested. It looks now that four years of being driven incessantly on by Guardiola had taken their toll. Xavi was hampered by persistent injury concerns, there were clear differences of opinion with Gerard Pique, and Dani Alves and Fabregas ended the season out of form and out of the team.
It was interesting to hear then both players suggesting in recent weeks that they feel more comfortable at the club than just a few months back. The ex-Arsenal man said on Friday that he felt he knew his role better within the side now while saying he expected his new boss to surprise some people in the coming months.
"Tito Vilanova knows a lot about football and has a lot of personality, more than people think," Cesc said. "He will bring new things and help us. He knows my game and what I must get from myself, and I know it too. We will help him with our sacrifice and behaviour. This can be a good year."
The chances of this happening were boosted by David Villa's goalscoring return to action against Dinamo Bucharest last weekend. His return - after eight months out through injury - should help ease the goalscoring burden on Messi. Even more important could be the Argentine getting a proper rest and full pre-season this summer.
Having all their players fit and firing from week one of the new season is especially important with the two Supercopa ties against Madrid looming - August 23 at the Camp Nou, then August 29 at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.
Mourinho's behaviour during last year's game in Barcelona also adds to the expectation. Both he and Vilanova had been due to miss the game through suspensions, but these were lifted when Spanish FA president Angel Maria Villar used Spain's Euro 2012 win to announce a general ban amnesty. The Portuguese coach finally admitted last week in the US that his actions on the night were wrong, and the two men say the incident is fully behind them, but few in Madrid or Catalonia believe that 100%. Players from both teams have been keen to play down the significance of the game, but neither they nor fans of either side will not take any Clasico lightly.
So the sense is that before this month is over we will know a lot more about Barcelona's new coach, as well as his team's prospects for the upcoming season. Guardiola is gone; it's Tito's time now.