JULY 17 — Just two weeks after providing many of the key players — and the tiki-taka style of play — for Spain’s European Championships triumph, FC Barcelona’s pre-season training programme got under way yesterday.
There is more than a month to go before the start of the Spanish league campaign, and yesterday’s activities were nothing more than low-key routine medical tests.
More serious business commences next Tuesday when Barca will contest their first pre-season friendly in Germany against Hamburg, followed by further high-profile exhibition matches with Manchester United and Paris St Germain before competitive action arrives with a home opener in La Liga against Real Sociedad on Sunday, August 19.
But forget those friendlies and the game against Sociedad — the early season action that will attract all the attention over the next few weeks is the first set of the new campaign’s Clasicos as cup winners Barca face league champions Real Madrid for the Spanish Super Cup, which will take place over two legs on August 23 (at the Nou Camp) and 30 (in Madrid).
To suggest that last season’s meetings between these two old enemies added further fuel to their already explosive relationship would be an understatement. They met on six occasions — twice in the Super Cup, twice in the Spanish Cup and twice in La Liga — resulting in three Barca victories, two draws and one win for Real, including 23 goals, four red cards and an unseemly touchline brawl (more of which later). Uneventful these games are certainly not.
Although those statistics suggest that Barca enjoyed the better of the tussles, it cannot be overlooked that Real’s sole success came in the most recent and arguably the most important of their six meetings: a 2-1 league win at the Nou Camp on April 21 which effectively sealed the Madrid club’s first league title since 2008.
The biggest change at either club for the new campaign is the installation of Tito Vilanova as new head coach at Barcelona following the much-lamented departure of Pep Guardiola.
He might have been fortunate to enjoy the services of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta during his four years in charge, but it’s difficult to exaggerate the importance of the part played by Guardiola — a former Barca player — in his club’s ascent to thrilling and silverware-laden football.
The players might have executed the plans to perfection, but Guardiola was the one who put those plans into place by setting the style of play, finding the right roles for his geniuses, keeping the dressing room and the boardroom happy and maintaining public dignity in the face of ever-growing pressure from Madrid.
Now that Guardiola, understandably exhausted by the non-stop intensity of his job, has departed for a well-deserved rest, it will be fascinating to see how the untested Vilanova responds to the challenge of stepping up from his previous role as Guardiola’s assistant.
In many ways, Vilanova will heavily benefit from the fact that he sat alongside Guardiola throughout the last four years (plus the previous season together with Barcelona’s B team): he already has the trust of the players and the fans, and is intimately acquainted with the strengths and weaknesses of the tiki-taka system.
However, being forced to take the tough decisions and then face the private (disaffected players and club management) and public (hostile fans and media) consequences when things go wrong is an entirely different challenge to the more anonymous “number two” role. Guardiola is one of the toughest acts to follow in the history of sport, and Vilanova will need to grow very thick skin to withstand the pressure.
In particular, Real boss Jose Mourinho will be rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of taking on the rookie newcomer in the psychological warfare stakes. “Chew him up and spit him out,” will be Mourinho’s ruthless intention, having already shown his disdain for his new opponent by viciously poking him in the eye during an ugly brawl at the end of last season’s aforementioned Super Cup meeting in Barcelona.
Unbelievably, Mourinho was only given a two-game Super Cup ban for his cowardly and unprovoked attack, with Vilanova handed a one-game suspension for his retaliatory shove on the Real boss. Even more unbelievably, the Spanish federation last week decided to revoke those bans, meaning that Mourinho escaped punishment for the assault and that both men will be on the sidelines when their teams meet in August.
And although the Super Cup is the least important trophy up for grabs over the next 10 months, those two games will carry a great deal of significance in Vilanova’s attempts to assert his authority in his new role.
If Real win convincingly, Vilanova will find himself under intense pressure from nervous fans and hyped-up media less than two weeks into the season; conversely, success for Barca would provide Vilanova with a great deal of security and silence any doubts of his capability to take on Mourinho.
Already, the excitable Spanish media are working themselves into a manic frenzy at the prospect of the Super Cup games, with popular TV channel Marca last week showing endless repeats of the eye-poking incident, while Vilanova’s first major press conference later today will be relentlessly scrutinised for any sign of controversy or weakness.
Let the battle commence...
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.