Barcelona boss Tito Vilanova’s treatment for cancer has been well documented and having led the team to the summit of La Liga with a record points total, he departed the club in a dominant position. However, since Vilanova left for America in late January it has been clear that the standard of Barcelona’s play has dropped, culminating in the disastrous 2-0 loss in Milan which has made an exit from the Champions League in the round of 16 a real possibility with three pivotal games against Real Madrid and Milan coming up quickly.
Since the announcement of the illness, Barcelona have not performed to the level they achieved prior to the mid-season winter break. Of the 14 games played, Barcelona have failed to win 5 and succumbed to their first league defeat of the season against Real Sociedad. The club has also failed to keep a clean sheet since the opening game of 2013 against Espanyol. Assistant coach Jordi Roura has taken charge when the likable Vilanova has been unavailable but since his latest and most extended period of treatment, players have at times been fortunate to register certain results.
Criticism of the players is harsh, especially as the results have been far from catastrophic. Dealing with the absence of a favourable and popular man in any aspect of life is tough and for many of the vastly experienced squad at the Nou Camp, continuing with their football has been probably the worst kind of challenge they have faced in their careers.
From a tactical perspective, Vilanova has been in regular contact and has been putting in a great amount of effort when he needn’t be. At the end of each training session, he and Roura are in contact comparing notes and compiling ways to beat the upcoming opposition. In a way it is the exact same setup that masterminded Barcelona’s unbeaten start to the season until the Sociedad game, albeit with the roles reversed. Roura is in a powerful yet awkward position, taking charge of someone else’s team whilst continuing to answer questions from both the staff at Barcelona and the press about Vilanova. He’s been a caring and calming influence on everyone concerned with Vilanova’s health whilst trying to encourage stricken players to express themselves on the pitch.
However, it has now been over two months since Barcelona released the statement regarding Vilanova’s health and the players have not fully recovered. Their slump has been dragged along until now, particularly the last 6 games, when Barca have looked unusually groggy. Against Valencia the team appeared to lack match fitness and, thanks only to a Lionel Messi penalty, took an undeserved point. In fact had it not been for Messi’s brilliance, Barca could have dropped many more points by now.
Barcelona have fallen behind in four of their last five games, coming back to win in two, versus Granada and against Sevilla on Saturday. It is very uncharacteristic of the team to be so poor until they are kicked into action. Both results have been 2-1 too which is rare considering the amount of goals Barcelona are able to score. The club proved their strength by thrashing Getafe 6-1 and Osasuna 5-1 but their usual level of performance has waned recently.
The Champions League defeat at the San Siro should be a wake-up call to everyone at the club. It is time for some tough love from the management, whilst harsh, the players do have to be able to deal with the fact Vilanova is absent as enough time has elapsed for the players to move on from the initial shock of the announcement.
From Saturday, we’re beginning to see that though.
David Villa, on his return from illness, headed in a cross to level the score against Sevilla – a sign that Barcelona can adapt to tight defences and a radical change from last season’s lack of a plan B and over reliance on Lionel Messi. Whether this was Roura’s or Vilanova’s instructions, it was much required and definitely reactive to the recent dip in form. It also showed how good a below-par Barcelona side are, that they are capable of grinding out results at difficult grounds.
Vilanova will surely be missing for the foreseeable future, which is a horrible scenario for Barcelona to cope with, but the league and cup competitions continue regardless. The motivation to win trophies for Vilanova is surely a tactic used in the dressing room but the situation is made no easier as each day passes without Vilanova present at training. The next four games for Barcelona include two Clasico matches in the league and Copa del Rey and the second leg of the Champions League tie. It is now when Barcelona face their most difficult challenge and the coaching staff must do all in their power to ensure the players enter these crucial games in the best possible mindsets.
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