Charting FC Barcelona's Highs and Lows This Season
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It's been quite the season for Barcelona.
In the space of nine short months, we've seen more twists and turns than a Dan Brown thriller.
Post Guardiola the world watched, ready to pass judgment on the Tito Vilanova era.
Had Sandro Rosell got it right in appointing Pep's right hand man? Could we expect to enjoy the same degree of success we had come to expect during the previous few years?
Would Barca's number two have enough about him to be a successful number one?
Let's take a look at some of the highs and lows that La Blaugrana have experienced since last August.
Tito Vilanova certainly hit the ground running and for the first part of the season at least gave his critics little to moan about.
Although Barcelona were narrow away-goal losers in the Spanish Supercup against Real Madrid, the best ever start to a La Liga season by a Barcelona manager was enough to keep the media pack at bay, and put all of the questions about Pep Guardiola's departure to bed within a few short weeks of the season opener.
Whilst the interplay wasn't perhaps as sharp or intense as the Guardiola model, Vilanova was faithful to the Barcelona way and the football was still pleasing on the eye.
An early highlight was the comeback win at Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on 29 September 2012. Trailing 2-1 and with only two minutes to play, Barca showed their mettle as late Cesc Fabregas and David Villa strikes saw all three points head to Catalonia.
Who could forget the topsy-turvy 5-4 win at the Riazor against Deportivo La Coruna? A Lionel Messi hat-trick, a red card for Javier Mascherano, leading 3-0 and then 4-2 and still it looked like Depor may pinch something from the game. It was football entertainment at its finest and most bizarre.
With 16 wins from his first 17 La Liga games, and with arch rivals Madrid enduring a torrid opening few months to the season, things couldn't have started any better for the studious Vilanova.
Just a week before Christmas 2012, Eric Abidal provided the story of this, or any other, football season by announcing that his cancer was in remission and stating his desire to return to full fitness and fight for a place on the first team.
On the same day, the club announced that Lionel Messi, Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernandez were all tied to long-term contracts by the club.
The feel-good factor in Catalonia was tangible yet it would be cruelly dispensed with almost immediately.
The very next day, along came the crushing blow that would come to define Barca's season.
Tito Vilanova's cancer had returned and he would need an immediate operation.
Physically and metaphorically it knocked Vilanova and Barca for six and the club were plunged into a situation for which they were not prepared.
Ill-conceived media reports at the time suggested, incorrectly, that Pep would return to save his beloved Blaugrana, but President Rosell preferred the continuity of promoting Jordi Roura, albeit temporarily, to the first team coach's position.
By round 19 of La Liga, the last match before the winter break, Barca had amassed an astonishing 55 points from a possible 57, which was a new record. Atletico Madrid were just about hanging onto Barca's coattails and Jose Mourinho's underperforming Real side were all but out of the title picture already.
As the second half of the season began, perhaps it was the cushion of such a gap and knowledge that losing a game or two really didn't matter that took Barca's eye—inevitably—off of the ball.
Perhaps it was Roura's inexperience at the very highest level.
Whatever the reason, the first cracks started to appear when Barcelona were surprisingly defeated on the road at Real Sociedad, 3-2.
A two-legged semifinal defeat in the Copa Del Rey against Madrid, a very lacklustre first leg performance against AC Milan in a 2-0 Champions League defeat and an early March El Clasico reverse of 2-1, had all and sundry proclaiming the end of this Barcelona team.
With most observers picking AC Milan to go through in the Champions League tie, Barca played arguably their best performance of the season to rout the Italians by 4-0.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Thank god for Lionel Messi.
Above all others, the diminutive Argentine stood up to be counted again, not just on that night but throughout the season.
Ending his 2012 with an astonishing record goals in a year haul of 91, Messi continued, and continues, to break records.
Scoring against every other La Liga team consecutively, and 21 games in succession are preposterous records that will, most likely, stand in the upper echelons of Spanish football folklore for decades to come.
The alarming regularity with which Messi hits the back of the net will shortly be evidenced by yet another Pichichi trophy for most La Liga goals in a season.
His current total of 46 goals is just shy of the 50-goal mark he set last season. However, a thigh injury picked up in the match against Atletico Madrid may deprive him of the chance to beat his record in Barca's final three matches.
Abidal came good on his promise when, on 6 April 2013, he replaced Gerard Pique for the last 20 minutes of a routine win against RCD Mallorca. The deserved standing ovation and noise that greeted his arrival onto the pitch will live long in the memory of anyone there to witness it.
The player completed his remarkable fight back a couple of weeks afterwards when he played the full 90 minutes, his first in over a year, in the match versus Levante.
Tito Vilanova returned to the bench on 25 March 2013 and although he masterminded a safe passage past Paris St Germain in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, questions were asked as to his decision-making policy after Barcelona were battered by a record 7-0 margin in the semifinals of the competition by an efficient Bayern Munich side.
It woudn't take long for the disappointment to subside, however, as just this past weekend, La Blaugrana confirmed their 22nd La Liga title following Real Madrid's failure to beat Espanyol.
That they have done so by leading from the first week of the season until the last is an achievement of which the entire staff should be rightly proud, especially given the turmoil of Vilanova's enforced mid-season absence.
Staff-wise, the signing of Jordi Alba can be considered a success. The energetic left back has endeared himself to the Camp Nou faithful with a string of high-class performances, and his 94th minute winner against Celtic in the Champions League will be a particular personal highlight.
Carles Puyol's absences are becoming longer and more frequent, and in his absence Gerard Pique has struggled to recapture his best form—a charge that could also be levelled at the likes of David Villa and Alexis Sanchez.
An unwelcome postscript to the season, although it has been known for some while now, is Victor Valdes' desire to leave Camp Nou; however, an inability to keep consecutive clean sheets may suggest a change between the posts is necessary and perhaps overdue.
At the time of writing, Barcelona can still equal Real Madrid's 100 point La Liga record set last season. Despite being knocked out of the Champions League at the semifinal stage, it was their sixth consecutive appearance at that stage of the competition—another record.
It's been an ultimately successful campaign, but one which can hopefully be improved upon next season.
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