Tito Vilanova has been tasked with replacing a Barcelona legend. Because he is the immediate successor to Pep Guardiola, he will always be compared to Pep. It doesn't matter whether or not that's fair.
In time, Vilanova will be his own man. That time is not now. Ahead of this year's first league Clasico, we must look at the past and remember the accomplishments of Pep Guardiola. In doing that, we can look at the future and better understand what Vilanova is working against to create his legacy as Barcelona's manager.
This, is of course the nature of sport. The need to compare the present, the accomplishments and failures of those playing or coaching now, against those that have come before them. It's a measuring stick that provides us a way to put accomplishments in to context so we can then endlessly debate about what player was better (Pele or Maradona) or which coach was better (Jose Mourinho or Alex Ferguson). The names are just examples, you can substitute whomever you like, but the debate is endless because that is how sport works.
For Tito Vilanova, his success, and ultimately his legacy, as manager of Barcelona will be weighed against the successes of Pep Guardiola.
It's inevitable and therefore important to understand what Pep accomplished during his time in charge of the Blaugrana, so that we can watch Vilanova's progress in context. In a perfect world, it doesn't matter what happened in the past. In a perfect world Vilanova would simply be judged based on trophies and victories (and to a great extent he will be) but this is not a perfect world, this is sport, and sport is a world haunted by ghosts, a world full of shadows that some must find a way to step out of.
Pep Guardiola's time in charge of Barcelona's senior side lasted four seasons, during which he managed 247 matches in all competitions, winning 179, drawing 47 and losing only 21, for a winning percentage of 72.47%.
He won La Liga three times, the Copa del Rey twice, the Supercopa de España three times, the UEFA Champions League twice, the UEFA Super Cup twice, and the FIFA Club World Cup twice. He won 18 various individual honors including La Liga coach of the year three times and the FIFA World Coach of the Year once.
Under Pep, Barca became the first Spanish side to ever win the treble (league, Copa de Rey, Champions League). He was also the youngest manager ever to win the Champions League.
Those are staggering statistics, especially considering Barcelona was his first top level job of any kind (he managed Barcelona B for one season before moving up to the senior side). That's it. That's Pep's entire coaching resume. Four seasons of senior level football in which he took advantage of having one of the greatest rosters ever assembled and catapulted to the top of the list of "best" active coaches.
Naysayers will of course shout about the quality of players he had at his disposal, as well as the financial resources given to him, but in the end he pulled everyone together. He set the tactics and he led a team that will likely be considered one of the greatest in history. Through it all, Vilanova was at his side, learning and waiting for his chance.
When Guardiola stepped down after the 2011/12 season, Barca wasted little time in appointing Vilanova as the team's new manager. The move made plenty of sense, but the shoes he's trying to fill are large and the weight of expectation is massive. That doesn't mean everyone should feel bad for Vilanova and coddle him, quite the opposite actually. He's a professional, he knew what he was getting into when he took the job and part of managing at the highest levels of football, or any sport, is having the belief in yourself to be able to handle the pressure.
Of course, believing you can handle pressure and actually being able to do it are totally different things. Even spending four seasons on the sidelines working under Guardiola and seeing the day-to-day grind was likely to completely prepare him for being the man in charge. For having every move you make scrutinized by the club, the media and the fans. It's a pressure cooker unlike anything else on earth at most clubs, but at Barcelona everything is amplified a thousand times over.
Through Tuesday's Champions League win, Vilanova has been doing very well. He's led Barcelona to a perfect 6-0-0 start in the league and he's won his first two UCL matches. His only loss as manager was to Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup, which doesn't really count anyway. So far, so good ... but everything changes on Sunday.
For the first time, he must prepare and lead his team out to face Real Madrid in a match that truly matters. He gets the slight advantage of getting to do this at home, but make no mistake, this will be his true first trial by fire. He'll stand on the touchline with Jose Mourinho, he will see the throng of media all week and on match day, the pressure he's only been on the cusp of up until now will be directly on his shoulders. Pep won't be there to take the spotlight, it all belongs to Vilanova. Many a human have been broken by far less, and if Vilanova wants to take his first step out of Guardiola's shadow, it must happen on Sunday.
A win for Barcelona would move them 12 points clear of their rivals. That's not an insurmountable lead, but enough of one that many will start squawking about La Liga being over in October. It's absurd of course, but that's how this works. A loss would open the door back up for Madrid to move then within six points of the leaders and give them another boost of confidence.
More than any of that, however, this truly begins the construction of Vilanova's legacy as the Barcelona manager.
Trophies and laurels are great, everyone loves them, but there's nothing more important that beating your rival. Successful coaches in many sports have lost their jobs because, despite doing everything else right, they couldn't beat a rival consistently.
All of the cups and awards that Pep Guardiola won during his four years at Barcelona were boosted by his superb record against Real Madrid. He managed the Blaugrana against Madrid 15 times. He won nine, drew twice and lost four. It's an extremely successful record and one made even more impressive by the fact that Pep won the first five matches he managed against Madrid.
Those kind of facts just add to the specter that Tito Vilanova must manage against. It doesn't matter whether or not he deserves the pressure. It's not personal, it's sport. This is what the media writes about, this is what fans talk about, and Vilanova knows this, he understands the pressure.
Sunday's match will not make or break Vilanova's tenure as the manager of Barcelona, but it will set the tone for what is to come. A loss would be like a tiny crack in the dam through which a small spray of water begins to come through. It's a fixable leak, not a catastrophic event, but the pressure will begin to build. If there's a poor result the next time he faces Madrid, that crack expands and the leak grows bigger.
That's probably not fair at all. In fact, it's completely ludicrous, but hardly a new thing. The margin for error is always small for managers of football clubs, at Barcelona, it's razor thin. There's too much at stake, too much invested for Sandro Rosell and the powers that be to overly forgiving. That's the nature of the job that Vilanova agreed to and he knows it.
The dam that holds back the swell of media and fan criticism is a thin veil, just waiting to break open. Tito Vilanova stands at the bottom of that dam, looking up and hearing the wall of water behind it churning, just aching to wash him away, but that is what being a head coach at the top level of the game is all about. That pressure is what you sign on the dotted line for.
On Sunday, we find begin to find out if Tito Vilanova can handle it. We find out if he can take his first step away from Pep Guardiola's shadow, or if he starts to become consumed by it.
Check out our video preview of the match