Vilanova's illness casts pall over Nou Camp
Barca form a worry under stand-in boss, writes Sid Lowe
In the build-up to their recent clash with Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu, Barcelona's players sat down for a pre-match pep talk with a difference: rather than the manager showing them a video, a video showed them their manager.
The message came from New York, where Tito Vilanova is undergoing radiotherapy and chemotherapy for cancer of the parotid gland in his throat. He has been there for much of 2013 after the relapse was announced on December 19.
Barcelona lost the match against Madrid, their third defeat in four games having been knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Madrid at the Nou Camp and defeated 2-0 by Milan at San Siro. It was not just that they had been defeated either; it was that, unusually, they deserved to be defeated. The Bernabeu match became the 13th consecutive game in which they had conceded and, across three meetings with Madrid and Milan, Leo Messi had managed only one shot on target.
With hindsight, the run could be traced further. Between assistant coach Jordi Roura taking charge in Vilanova's absence and last night's match against Deportivo La Coruna, Barcelona had played 10, won five, drawn two and lost three.
To frame Barcelona's slipping form and poor results in terms of the absence of their coach felt wrong, insensitive, maybe even a bit grubby; as if to do so was to somehow blame Vilanova for suffering from cancer, as if he should almost feel guilty. To frame Barcelona's poor form in terms of Roura's managerial ability felt equally unfair. His friend was seriously ill and this was not a job he had aspired to.
For the first few weeks, results remained good. Some even argued that Barcelona were a team that did not need a coach. The players certainly showed responsibility, with early pre-match press conferences held by captains rather than the coach.
Vilanova was, and still is, in constant contact with Roura. He watched every match and every training session. Some team meetings, like that before the Bernabeu, were handled by video conference call. For all the technology, though, there is simply no substitute for actually being there.
There are times when Roura must decide, when he must intervene, and then the risk is that the message becomes mixed. Roura is popular but he does not have the gravitas, the charisma or the authority that Vilanova had.
"I do not have nor do I want more autonomy," Roura says. "I am just the second coach." In that context, it is natural that the intensity has slipped from Barcelona's game, the precision and pace, that competitive edge whose centrality to their success is too often overlooked.
When the question is asked whether Barcelona have been affected by the absence of their coach, the response must surely be: how could they possibly not be? How could the absence of a manager not affect them? Javier Mascherano put it in stark terms: "Our coach is not in New York on holiday." It is not just that he is absent, it is why he is absent.
Barcelona have other problems: small issues that, put together, can make a difference; small issues that, unattended, certainly can. Some of them go back a long way: it is tempting even to see the hint of decline in Pep Guardiola's decision to depart. The pressure on the ball is not what it was; the dependence upon Messi grows greater; their play tends to get funnelled through the middle; Xavi, 33 now, is the ideologue but he is struggling for fitness; defensive mistakes are common; their signings have not all proven successful. Alex Song's arrival continues to baffle.
Roura offered up another possible explanation: Barcelona's long-term planning allows for a physical dip in February, in preparation for the vital months of March and April. The problem is that you have to get to March and Milan provided stiffer opposition than anticipated, so they have spent the last fortnight shifting their regime to reach something like full fitness for the second leg. Whether it will be enough remains to be seen.
Last week the president Sandro Rosell travelled to New York to see Vilanova; if there was a temptation to see it as a kind of summit, a management meeting, Rosell did not entertain that idea. Instead, he insisted again that Vilanova's priority should not be Barcelona; rather, Barcelona's priority should be Vilanova. There have been no complaints, either, no calls to action.
When he returned he insisted: "Tito's health is the most important thing. Tito is our coach, nobody else. We are not going to move anyone, even if it means winning nothing. For us, a good season is Tito making a full recovery."