Barcelona boosted as Tito Vilanova retakes reins at Primera Liga leaders
Table-toppers' coach expected to retake the reins for derby clash with Espanyol after missing just one game while undergoing cancer surgery
Barcelona expect to have coach Tito Vilanova back at the helm following cancer surgery as they return to league action after the winter break with a local derby tomorrow against Espanyol.
Although news that Vilanova had a recurrence of a tumour on a saliva gland sent shock waves around the Catalan club, the impact has been limited by the stoppage over Christmas. After a successful operation he has missed just one game, an away victory against Valladolid for which his assistant Jordi Roura took charge, and Barcelona extended their record start to the campaign to 16 wins from 17 games in La Liga.
Vilanova returned to the training ground - where full-back Eric Abidal has been going through his own battle with cancer and is also on the comeback trail - this week.
"Tito and Abidal are both examples of fighting spirit. They are examples to follow for all that they have been through and yet at the same time they have always been there to help the club and their teammates," Barca keeper Victor Valdes said. "They give us a big boost and the energy to keep going season after season, and to continue the success. We all hope that they are well and happy.
"We now have a derby game, and they are always important at home or away, but for those of us who are from here, we are used to facing Espanyol. On a professional level, it is a big match and we will give them full respect.
"There is still a long way to go in the title race, as we haven't even finished the first half of the season, although we do have a good lead. It is a very competitive league and there are a lot of points at stake."
Meanwhile, Real Madrid have fallen 16 points behind Barcelona and will now have to field a makeshift defence against Real Sociedad tomorrow, with Pepe, Marcelo, Raul Albiol and Fabio Coentrao all injured and Sergio Ramos serving a suspension.
The decision to drop keeper Iker Casillas in the final game of last year against Malaga reinforced rumours that coach Jose Mourinho had lost the support of key figures in the dressing room.
Pepe further antagonised the situation by telling newspapers in his home country that the Portuguese players in Spain were being victimised.
Sergio Ramos has since tried to ease the edgy atmosphere at the Bernabeu.
"When things are not going well, it is necessary to be more united. I've know Iker for years and we are good friends. I don't think it is strange what happened [when he was dropped] as it is the job of the captain of a ship to take decisions," he said.
"We are on the right track, everyone's attitude has been good and there is no reason to complain. Our job now is to keep fighting for the title."
Atletico Madrid lead the pursuit of Barca, lying nine points behind the leaders, and are away to Mallorca tomorrow.
Malaga, in fourth spot and just two points off Real Madrid, are away to bottom side Deportivo La Coruna today.
Levante aim to bounce back against Athletic Bilbao after their first defeat in four games, away to Rayo Vallecano.
Valencia and Sevilla, who face Granada and Osasuna, respectively, are both used to being higher up the table and will be hoping for an upturn in fortunes.
Elsewhere, Celta Vigo take on Valladolid and Rayo Vallecano play Getafe.