Spain flagThere was no Andres Iniesta, no Xavi and no Gerard Pique. There was no Pedro, Sergio Busquets or Cesc Fabregas. And, most importantly of all, there was no Pep Guardiola. 

Leo Messi was there, though. And so was Tito Vilanova. On July 17, a new era began as Vilanova took his first training session as Barcelona’s coach. After five years as Guardiola’s assistant, one at Barcelona B and four in the first team, now he had to go it alone.

“The first day is a bit strange,” said Vilanova. “We were together for five years, so it is an odd sensation. But we will have to get used to it because that’s the way it’s going to be all year.”

Guardiola had gone after three league titles, two European Cups and two Club World Cups made him the most successful coach in Barcelona’s history. More than a coach, he was the perfect embodiment of the club, the man who more than anyone else came to represent Barca. But burnt out and in need of a rest he walked away.

Living up to Guardiola will be impossible for Vilanova; living up to Guardiola would have been impossible even for Guardiola. But in opting for his  assistant, Barcelona believe they have secured continuity. Writing in the sports daily AS, Santi Gimenez likened the transition to Liverpool’s “boot room”: if Guardiola was Shankly, Vilanova was Paisley. The pathway had been laid out.

Declaration of belief

Barcelona’s swift handling of the situation seemed to be perfectly handled at first, at least from an emotional point of view. Vilanova’s arrival was announced simultaneously to Guardiola’s decision to walk away. What could have been a day of pessimism and concern was repackaged as a day of optimism; a kind of reaffirmation of their identity, a declaration of belief in a project, an ideal.

And yet soon there appeared to be a risk of it all unravelling. There were suggestions that Guardiola had not been entirely happy with the way that it was done and Vilanova did not sign his contract immediately. Opposition figures re-emerged and there was public criticism. President Sandro Rosell continued to look uncomfortable in his role, still seeking an identity, and it was hard to avoid the sensation that his support of the new coach might not be as whole-hearted as he had tried to make it look. The voice of Joan Laporta, Barca’s former president, was heard.

Vilanova has always been a committed defender of the same footballing philosophy as Guardiola, perhaps even a more virulent one
than the man he used to work with. Interviews with him while he was a number two show a man utterly convinced by Barcelona’s approach. Although he had largely kept his council following Jose Mourinho’s arrival in Madrid, he had been critical of the Portuguese coach when he was at Internazionale. Now, on his first day as coach, he adopted a conciliatory tone.

If Vilanova was already known for anything it was for being the man who Mourinho poked in the eye in last year’s Spanish Super Cup. This year’s game will bring the men together again in August. Although they had been banned for this year’s competition – Mourinho for two games, Vilanova for one – the federation president Angel Maria Villar issued a pardon. “I accept that,” Vilanova said.

Players talk about Vilanova as a man who is meticulous in his preparation; dedicated and disciplined. The assumption is that there will be a continuity about Camp Nou. But in stepping into a different role, with greater responsibility and far greater pressure, he is stepping into the unknown. One thing he does know is that the team to beat will be Real Madrid – and not just in the Super Cup.

Mourinho is beginning his third season at Madrid. No coach had lasted as long since Vicente del Bosque and at last they have stability. They also have largely the same squad as last season, after Gonzalo Higuain was persuaded to stay. They will be joined by new signings, with Luca Modric, Madrid’s first priority. As for Barcelona, they moved to sign Jordi Alba three days before the Final of Euro 2012. He returns to the club he first joined as a 13-year-old.

Alba’s signing, at a time of stagnation on the Spanish summer market, reinforced that dominance of the big two in Spain. Valencia had four World Cup winners, but ended up having to sell them all. They managed to get another player into the Spain squad and Alba was a revelation at Euro 2012. But by the time he scored against Italy, he was a Barcelona player. Of the starting XI against Italy, only one does not play for Madrid or Barcelona – Manchester City’s David Silva. They will be the two teams fighting it out for the title once again. Vilanova knows that.

Sid Lowe