BARCELONA - The Associated Press
Vilanova starts his first season as the Barcelona coach, hoping to dethrone Real Madrid as the La Liga champion. Vilanova says he is up for challenge against Mourinho
FC Barcelona's coach Tito Vilanova attends a training session at the Sports Center FC Barcelona Joan Gamper in the San Joan Despi, Spain, Thursday, July 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
Few first-year coaches have inherited as rich a legacy as Tito Vilanova, now in charge of Barcelona’s experienced and star-studded team led by the unequaled Lionel Messi.
Fewer still face as much pressure as Pep Guardiola’s former assistant, who is tasked with recovering the Spanish league title from Real Madrid.
Not only will Vilanova struggle to escape comparisons with his mentor, who led the club to an unprecedented 14 titles in four seasons, he will also have to handle Guardiola’s biggest adversary, Madrid manager Jose Mourinho.
“Until now, (Vilanova) had a low profile and all the responsibility fell on Guardiola, now it is his turn to take the leading role,” said Barcelona’s Javier Mascherano. “All eyes are on him, but he has always been an important part of the success of this team.”
Vilanova and Mourinho have a brief but colorful history.
In his first two seasons at Madrid, Mourinho has again proven to be one of football’s greatest coaches as well as one of its most outlandish figures, as Vilanova knows better than most after getting poked in the eye by Mourinho in a scuffle during last season’s heated Spanish Super Cup.
Mourinho guided Madrid to the Spanish crown with a record points haul (100) and goals scored (121), breaking Barcelona’s run of three straight titles and sending Guardiola into an early retirement. Vilanova, who had been Guardiola’s assistant for five season, takes over with little margin for failure.Conciliary tone
Entering this season as the champion, Mourinho has used a conciliatory tone toward Vilanova. He even made a half-baked apology for the infamous eye poke.
“I should obviously not have done what I did,” Mourinho said recently. “Nevertheless, there was a whole story behind that that made me lose a little control. The one who failed there was me.
“There lie no problems between Tito and myself,” the Portuguese manager added. “Thankfully, the story is over and we must just hope to avoid such instances in the future.”
This newfound cordiality will be put to the test when the Spanish rivals meet again in the Spanish Super Cup on Aug. 23, four days after both teams open their league campaigns, with Barcelona facing Real Sociedad and Madrid hosting Valencia.
Vilanova promised to stay “very calm” and keep his composure if Mourinho does try to ruffle him.
“I am tired of talking about what happened with Mourinho last year,” Vilanova said.
Guardiola mostly ignored Mourinho’s steady stream of barbs and didn’t mention Mourinho when announcing his coaching hiatus, but he did blame the constant pressure for his exit.
Jose and Tito first crossed paths in 1998 when Mourinho was an assistant at Barça for Luis van Gaal, who let Mourinho take charge during a Catalonia Cup game against Lleida. Vilanova, then a Lleida player, scored in his team’s 2-1 loss, making him the first player to score against a Mourinho-led team.
Lleida’s current sports director, Jordi Esteve, was Vilanova’s teammate then. While acknowledging Vilanova lacks Guardiola’s charisma, Esteve said Press that he believes Vilanova will still succeed as Barcelona’s head coach.
“He was meticulous. He looked for the details and noticed things that the rest of us didn’t,” Esteve said. “Still, you never imagined he would end up coaching Barça.”
The 42-year-old, who has ditched his track suits for designer clothes on the sideline, knows he can count on Messi, after a record-setting season of 73 goals.
“Improving on what we have done will be tough,” Vilanova said. “I am aware of the difficulty and that our fans want us to keep winning. We are here to try.”