Football: Barca in a bind

Football: Barca in a bind

UNITED KINGDOM - You could tell from the faces of the players that this was so much more, and so much worse, than just a simple change of manager.

Twice, the Barcelona stars have had to say farewell to Tito Vilanova and wish him luck in his battle against cancer. Twice, he has returned victorious to help guide the team to glory.

Now they have to say farewell a third time, but on this occasion there are no plans for him to return to the coaching staff. Vilanova is standing down to focus fully on his fight for life.

Now, as distasteful as it may seem, the speculation begins. It is late in the summer for an appointment of this scale. The managerial merry-go-round has almost stopped turning.

All across Europe, there has been change at the highest level. At Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, Napoli, Paris St-Germain, Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea, new managers are settling into their pre-season routines.

There aren't many candidates of the calibre that Barcelona will require, especially as the Catalans favour managers with a link to the club.

The timing isn't good.

Luis Enrique, former Barcelona player and coach of the B team, has just taken over at Celta Vigo after a disappointing season at Roma. Frank de Boer, a former Barcelona defender and three times title-winning manager at Ajax, has just signed a new four-year deal in Holland.

Michael Laudrup, who may have blotted his copybook by leaving Barcelona for Real Madrid in 1994, has signed a contract extension at Swansea.

Of the managers out of work, Marcelo Bielsa would probably be a lurch too far to the left for the Catalans.

A highly experienced, but bafflingly idiosyncratic manager, he's not the man you'd choose for a smooth transition. Jupp Heynckes is available, and might be tempted back into football, but he did seem quite adamant that his treble-winning season with Bayern Munich would be his last.

There has been wild speculation about Sir Alex Ferguson as well, but while there is a lingering suspicion that we haven't quite seen the last of him, it's a bit soon for a sudden change of heart.

Gerardo Martino, a disciple of Bielsa, is the bookies' favourite. Martino led Paraguay to the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup and the final of the 2011 Copa America.

A sudden rush of big money bets saw his odds slashed on Saturday morning (Singapore time). If it is to be Martino, he will have his work cut out.

There is much to be done at Barcelona.

They are the champions, and they won the league with a joint-record points tally, but they were humiliated by Bayern Munich and there are obvious deficiencies in the squad.

Put simply, they have hardly any defenders. Gerard Pique is world class, but Carles Puyol is now 35, Marc Bartra is inexperienced and Javier Mascherano is supposed to be a midfielder.

There is a serious lack of height in the ranks, something that Bayern identified as a weakness and exploited with a ruthless aerial bombardment. Fresh blood is required.

Then there is the question of Lionel Messi.

After a battle with Spanish tax authorities, he may be in the mood to consider a cash bonanza move elsewhere.

He wouldn't have to worry about tax at all if he went to Monaco, though it is PSG who have been reported to be sniffing around in the hope of luring him away from Spain.

That speculation will need to be nipped in the bud immediately.

New signing Neymar will need to be reassured that his status remains the same.

The Cesc Fabregas saga needs to be resolved. The older, established players need to be won over and not alienated by new tactical tweaks. It's a challenging role.

But for now, in public at least, Barcelona's primary concern will be the fitness of Vilanova.

No-one should have to suffer cancer once. To have to suffer it for a third time, and at such a young age, is entirely unfair.

Get well soon, Tito.

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