Barcelona players were the first visitors to a memorial space to Tito Vilanova at the Nou Camp as they attempted to come to terms with the loss of their former manager.
Vilanova died on Friday following a battle with throat cancer and Barca’s players, accompanied by coach Tata Martino and director of football Andoni Zubizarreta, preceded their day’s training session with a group visit to the remembrance area in the stadium’s main stand, which was subsequently visited by thousands of fans over the course of the day.
Veteran captain Carles Puyol attempted to sum up the mood of the squad as he admitted: “This is a very difficult blow to take.”
This time last year, Vilanova was in the process of leading Barca to the La Liga title, having previously spent five years as assistant manager to Pep Guardiola – one with the club’s B team and four in charge of the senior side.
He had also earlier worked within Barca’s academy, coaching an Under-14 team containing Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique.
Vilanova was first diagnosed with throat cancer in November 2011 and fought his way through two phases of treatment whilst continuing his work at the club, before finally leaving employment at the Nou Camp last July.
Puyol admitted the players will find it difficult to prepare themselves for Sunday night's must-win La Liga trip to Villarreal, saying: “It is a very hard moment.
“A great person has left us and we send all our strength to his friends and family. We are here for anything they might need.”
However, Puyol did attempt to draw some comfort from the positive nature of Vilanova’s stoic battle against his disease, adding: “For two and a half years Tito was an example for us all. He fought until the last day, the last moment. He showed great strength and a brave face through it all. When you spoke to him he gave you inspiration, inspiration to us all to fight.”
Speaking of behalf of the club’s coaching and administration staff, Zubizarreta added: “We have lost a well-rounded man who was a loving father and husband, a great friend to his friends, and a true Barca man who knew this club from the old Masia to the first team.”
There were also words of anguish from a devastated Guardiola, who worked with Vilanova for five glorious years between 2007 and 2012, with the pair first meeting as teenagers in the club’s youth system.
Guardiola was visibly upset on the sidelines during the course of his Bayern Munich team’s 5-2 victory over Werder Bremen, which was preceded by a minute’s silence for Vilanova.
After the game an emotional Guardiola said: “We were more than friends for 30 years and the sadness will stay with me forever.”
Recalling their days side by side at the Nou Camp, Guardiola reflected: “We experienced so much together. We won together and lost together. We were young, we wanted to eat the world and we ate it.”
On Sunday night, Barcelona’s players have to turn their attention back to football with the trip to Villarreal.
Anything less than victory would effectively end their title challenge, and Barca will again be without captain Carles Puyol who has been ruled out with an ongoing knee problem.
With Victor Valdes, Jordi Alba, Gerard Pique and Neymar also absent through injury, Martino’s options are limited.
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