x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Barcelona to keep it in the family with Vilanova

Players watch as Pep Guardiola confirms his time at Camp Nou is over.

Pep Guardiola, left, with his assistant Tito Vilanova, oversee the Champions League quarter-final victory against AC Milan. Alvaro Barrientos / AP Photo
Pep Guardiola, left, with his assistant Tito Vilanova, oversee the Champions League quarter-final victory against AC Milan. Alvaro Barrientos / AP Photo

Barcelona // The news was big and delivered with a twist nobody expected. Josep Guardiola i Sala, the Barcelona coach, the club president Sandro Rosell and the sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta walked into a packed Camp Nou press room at 1.32pm local time to a flurry of camera flashes.

Barca's triumvirate entered a space which had been well used in the previous week, with mammoth press conferences around the clasico defeat to Real Madrid and Champions League semi-finals elimination to Chelsea.

It had staged scenes of angst and rare emotion from Guardiola, compliments and contrition. And now it was staging his exit.

Barca's coach of almost four years had refused to sign a contract taking him beyond the end of this season. He always left it late to sign contracts, but never this far and speculation increased on Thursday that he was leaving.

Few in the room were surprised as Rosell opened proceedings by confirming that: "Pep Guardiola will not continue as coach next season."

Rosell continued: "It was difficult to accept Pep's decision. If it would have depended on the club, he would have stayed" before he thanked the coach for "your work and love".

Guardiola smiled before explaining his reasons for leaving.

"Being Barcelona coach for four years is an eternity and I'm drained and I need to recharge," he said. "The demand has been very high and a manager must be strong. It wouldn't have been a good thing, not for me, not for the players, if I continued."

The players, almost the entire first-team squad, watched intently from the front two rows. Most admired and adored their boss. They had won everything they can win in club football and then some.

Most. Guardiola has been at odds lately with Gerard Pique, Daniel Alves and Cesc Fabregas. No coach sees eye-to-eye 100 per cent of the time with all of his team and Guardiola's intense, driven personality, his high demands, caused friction if things were not done his way. And his was the only way, as the departed Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Samuel Eto'o and Ronaldinho would testify.

Guardiola gave more explanations, thanks and two apologies, saying: "I'm truly sorry for losing my energy. If I don't have that life that I had when I started ... I can't lie" and "I'm sorry for the confusion in recent weeks" before Zubizarreta spoke.

"Tito Vilanova will be the new coach of FC Barcelona," said the sporting director to audible gasps of surprise from the journalists. The players looked surprised, too - it was the first that they knew, yet the club's board has already ratified the decision to name Guardiola's former assistant as his replacement.

Marcelo Bielsa and Laurent Blanc had been mentioned, polls conducted about their popularity among shocked supporters who thought Guardiola would stay. The name of Vilanova, who missed much of this season with a throat tumour and only recently returned, barely registered but as Zubizarreta said: "We've always said that if the team needs players, the first place we look is at home [to Barca B]. What do we have here at home? Tito."

A Catalan, Francesc "Tito" Vilanova is a former player who, at 42, is a year older than Guardiola, came through the Barca youth ranks with in the late 1980s. Unlike Guardiola, he did not make the grade at Barca and enjoyed an unassuming career with just 26 top-flight games. He has been Guardiola's trusted assistant since 2007 when the pair took over at Barca B and then the first team a year later.

As the announcement was made, Guardiola smiled and looked relieved at times, at others appeared to be wondering if this was really happening. Free of the pressures by which he was increasingly burdened, football's most successful coach in the last four years will have plenty of time to consider his future at home with his family and on the golf course with his mentor Johan Cruyff.

sports@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE