Column: For Barcelona and Lionel Messi, sick leave for coach shouldn't be a recipe for trouble
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