A new era; a new dawn – that’s what most Cules around the globe are hoping for. Pep Guardiola rode into the sunset on a winning note, but perhaps not exactly the way he’d have liked when he promised – “I promise you that we’ll work hard. I don’t know if we’ll win, but we will try very hard. Fasten your seat belts, you are going to enjoy the ride,” back in 2008. Barcelona relinquished their European champion status to Chelsea and the domestic one to arch-rivals Real Madrid. Bela Guttmann was thus proved right!
Despite the fact that the team was devoid of the unparalleled service of David Villa and Ibrahim Afellay, they went on to score 114 goals in the league, of which, 50 were Leo Messi’s – a feat which perhaps looks safe, unless the Argentine decides to up the ante, again! Villa and Afellay’s return can be deemed as new signings and with Alexis, Pedro, Cuenca, Tello, Fabregas and of course the 50-goal man, the offense seems to be more or less complete. However, there is always place for some flair and extra-skill and that is where they might coin the term – Neymar (ever heard of such a word before? Naah…).
The standard set by Guardiola and his men are such that the 2011-12, ironically Guardiola’s last, is termed as a failure – albeit the 2007-08 season under Rijkaard isn’t anything prehistoric. Transient memory as they say! Tito Vilanova, more famous for the eye gouging incident by Real Madrid honcho, Jose Mourinho, who thereby defined the new nadir of human profanity, is the new boss at the Camp Nou. Unlike the last task-master, Vilanova isn’t someone who will respond to sacrilege with dignity. Jose Mourinho got perhaps the biggest retaliation of his career from Guardiola (when he played down Jose’s attempt to play mind-games), who was otherwise extremely regal in his handling of things; but with Vilanova, the Madrid taskmaster is in for a rough ride – off the pitch of course.
Vilanova’s style shouldn’t be any different from that of Guardiola in principle. However, a little tweaking and twisting is essential. Evolution is important and tiki-taka is no exception. However, the revered Sid Lowe has done a wonderful job in portraying the new Barca boss. Here’s an excerpt from one of his masterpieces in The Guardian –
“Under Guardiola, Vilanova’s role has been fundamental. Sergio Busquets described him as “like the manager but calmer”; Andrés Iniesta says he is “like a book, he teaches you so much”; and Puyol described him as “discreet and hard-working”. Guardiola dedicated the coach of the year award he received at the Fifa gala this year to him, delivering part of his speech in Catalan to the friend who had undergone a procedure to remove a tumour from his mouth. The sense of optimism at his appointment on Friday was enhanced by the simple fact that Vilanova has made a full recovery.
Barcelona had turned a crisis into a succession. “Guardiola was Shankly,” one Catalan journalist noted, “let’s hope Tito is Paisley.” Guardiola would not continue but his philosophy would. Vilanova has been an even more bullish advocate of the Barcelona approach. “For us, winning alone is not enough,” he told El País’s Lu Martín in 2009, “we have an ideal of youth team players and attacking football, as Barcelona’s culture demands.”
It’s no rocket science that Barcelona struggled when it came to defense last season. From Alex Pato to Didier Drogba (brilliantly assisted by Lampard and Ramires, though) – whenever the opposition has had a quality striker, the Catalans have had problems dealing with him. It’s not always that you can smoke and outscore your opposition and the match against Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final bears testimony to that. Despite being the better team, Barcelona eventually surrendered to the resolute Chelsea defense! Jose Mourinho has perhaps manifested a way to stifle Barca. It’s more of a prolonged and painful death rather than a swift and easy one.
Vilanova’s priority will be to sort out the defense. Carles will be back to full fitness before the season begins but the lion-hearted Catalan isn’t getting any younger. Eric Abidal too is out of the equation, albeit Jordi Alba has already been roped in to cover for the loss and the young Spaniard’s combination with Iniesta on the left flank, in the recently concluded Euro 2012, has given the Cules quite a few reasons to be hopeful and optimistic. Centre of defense, however, still remains a matter of concern and quite a few possible candidates are likely to make the cut. Javi Martinez, the upcoming star for the Spanish National Team of the future was the most likely candidate but his exorbitant price tag has detracted the frugal Sandro Rossell.
Sweet home ALaBAma
The departure of Seydou Keita has left a void in the midfield and in the dressing room, which cannot exactly be filled. The Malian’s arrival and departure coincided with that of his more illustrious manager, and it’s without an iota of doubt that Barca lost a professional par excellence. Keita accepted any role that was offered to him – centre midfielder, defensive and attacking midfielder and even as a defender. His work-ethics resonated perfectly with that of the one at the Camp Nou and with at the twilight of his career, he deserved a chance to earn more playing time and a fatter pay check as well.
The void of Keita will be felt, but Vilanova has quite a few youngsters coming up from the academy and as always, Barcelona will cope with the loss of their key figures. Injuries however, have already started to play truant – the latest being Marc Muniesa, who succumbed a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Barca’s opening pre-season game against Hamburg, will be out for almost half the season. Muniesa was perhaps close to a loan move to Ajax, to replace Jan Vertonghen, after the latter moved to Tottenham. The fact that Johan Cruyff had recommended the youngster to Ajax to replace an established star bears testimony to his ability.
In Marc Bartra and Fontas Prat, Barcelona has two young and promising centre backs. Bartra is quite similar to Gerard Pique; however, he’s faster than the former Manchester United defender. Particularly good in the air, Bartra also has the ability to bring the ball out of the danger zone with aplomb. Fontas on the other hand is an imposing defender, who is physically very strong. Having played as a midfielder in the junior teams, Fontas has a keen eye for a breakthrough pass, which might just initiate an attack. Muniesa’s injury is indeed an unfortunate one, as the youngster is blessed with a lot of pace – an attribute which defenders usually lack. His ability in the air and positioning is beyond his years and certainly has the potential to stand up to guard the Catalan fortress in years to come. Montoya is yet another promising player, who is deemed to be Dani Alves’ successor. Pace and stamina to patrol the flank makes him a threat to opposition and in his tenure at the La Masia, Montoya has honed his passing and crossing abilities. Although these players are very young, nonetheless, the future looks bright.
The recent interest in Alex Song (Arsenal) and Jeremy Toulalan (Malaga) is indeed to make up for the loss of Keita. Aged 24 and 28 respectively, either one of these two defensive midfielders can forge a long-term relationship with the Catalan club with their versatility – ability to shuffle between being a defender or a midfielder – a prospect which Vilanova will cherish. While Song is the more effervescent one, Toulalan is an extremely shy individual with great passing, and tough tackling. Song however surges ahead of Toulalan by virtue of his endless stamina and ability to break the opposition attack and holding onto the ball. With age on his side, and the improved range of passing manifested by him last season, the Cameroonian might just have an edge over the Frenchman. Toulalan, however, has a better understanding of the type of game prevalent in Spain.
Alexandre Dimitri Song Billong can surely replace Keita
Vilanova has a tough task at hand – not only does he have to negate the threat posed by Madrid in Spain and Chelsea in Europe, he also has to fit in seamlessly in Guardiola’s shoes. The former might just sound difficult, but the latter perhaps has all the ingredients required to define difficult. As of the players and staff aren’t exactly finding it any different from what went on in the Guardiola-era, however, whether Tito replicates the crests reached in the last four years is yet to be seen. Your call is as good as ours – Stay Tuned!