Why Tito Vilanova Can Inspire Barcelona and Lionel Messi to Return to Their Best

Paul Wilkes@@paulwilkesfootyFeatured ColumnistMay 1, 2014

FC Barcelona's players during a religious ceremony at Barcelona Cathedral for the late former FC Barcelona's coach Tito Vilanova in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, April 28, 2014. FC Barcelona announced on their web page Friday April 25, 2014, that Vilanova has died Friday following a long battle with throat cancer. He was 45. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

The tragic news of Tito Vilanova's passing shocked the Spanish football world late last week. When such context is added to the game, any previous problems seem insignificant in comparison.

Barcelona have had a nightmare season off the pitch, but those at the club will have a whole new sense of perspective due to their former manager's death.

"The truth is that it was a very hard blow for us and unfortunately, we've suffered quite a few recently," captain Carles Puyol told Barcelona's official website. "This has been the toughest though."

The win over Villarreal on the weekend was dramatic, with Barca coming from two goals down to claim the 3-2 victory. Some of the players dedicated the turnaround to Vilanova, but it's also clear that the emotion of the occasion drained them of energy.

"This was one of the most difficult days to play," midfielder Xavi explained to the club's official website, per PA Sport, via ESPN FC. "We felt it in our bodies. We've lost a leader. He will always be an example."

He was obviously well liked by his playing staff, and they are now using that motivation to make an unlikely late surge for La Liga.

"Tito always treated me phenomenally well, and whenever we won a title I would hug him and thank him for the experience," said Javier Mascherano to the press after the Villarreal match, per Barcelona's official website. "What we have to do is fight until the end like Tito, we have a lot of fight left in us."

Vilanova spent his youth career at La Masia, where he formed a friendship with Pep Guardiola. He never went on to to play for the first team in an official match, though he did play in a friendly 25 years ago this week, via the official Barcelona website.

The longest he served at any club outside of Barca was three years. He started his managerial tenure at the Camp Nou in 2007 as the B-team assistant.

Vilanova has taught the players a valuable lesson in a year in which they have taken their success for granted and not performed at level we have seen in recent times.

He has shown them that no matter the adversity they face, they must find the determination and spirit to come through. This is something they will remember and take into next season.

Simply showing more grit in matches and playing at a higher tempo won't be enough to return them to the top of the footballing tree. It's here that they need to revisit Vilanova's methods to get the best out of this underperforming squad.

Winning the championship with 100 points was a fantastic achievement given his health issues and the obvious struggles the club faced when Jordi Roura was steadying the ship.

Barcelona were slightly more direct than under Guardiola, but when he was well enough to be present in training and at matches, the fundamental part of the philosophy remained.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 05:  Lionel Messi of Barcelona speaks with Tito Vilanova the Barcelona head coach as he prepares to come off the bench during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Betis Balompie at Camp Nou on May 5, 2013 in Barcelona, Sp
David Ramos/Getty Images

With the likelihood of a new coach arriving in the summer, the board need to appoint someone with a similar orientation.

Then there is Lionel Messi. The Argentine forward scored his second-highest season tally with Vilanova in charge. His 46 La Liga goals were less than his 50 in the previous term, but it was done in fewer matches, via ESPN FC.

In the league, his strike rate works out to 1.64 goals per start in comparison to 1.39 goals the year prior, and they had a title to show for it. It's all fine margins, but if the new man can do what Tito did with Messi, it would be good news for all at Barcelona.

"I will always have inside of me the things I shared with him and the things we lived through together, which I can never forget," says Messi's message on the official website. "For me, you will always be remembered Tito."