As Barcelona supporters take in the news of Pep Guardiola's impending departure as the club's manager it may not do much to sooth their despair that the man who will replace him next season is known primarily for being poked in the eye by José Mourinho. The assault occurred during the climax of Barça's Spanish Super Cup second-leg tie with Real Madrid at the Camp Nou last August and led to Real's manager being accused by, among others, Gerard Piqué of trying to "ruin Spanish football". Little was heard from the actual victim, Francesc "Tito" Vilanova, Guardiola's long-standing assistant.
Now, however, the understated figure who has worked behind the scenes to help this generation of Barcelona players become arguably the greatest team the planet has ever seen will have to make himself heard, his presence felt, and, should Mourinho remain in charge at the Bernabéu next season, stand up to the further assaults that are likely to come his way from the combative Portuguese. It will prove the ultimate test of character for a man who has existed in the shadows for the bulk of his professional career.
Born in Bellcaire d'Empordà, a village located in the Catalan province of Girona, in September 1969, Vilanova joined Barcelona's fabled La Masia academy in 1984, becoming part of a group of players that contained a future captain and manager of the first-team; Guardiola. The pair developed a strong friendship, one that lasted after Vilanova, unable to make the grade at first-team level himself, left Barcelona in 1990 and eventually ended up at Celta Vigo, for whom he made his La Liga debut in 1992.
Spells at Badajoz, Mallorca, Lledida, Eleche and, finally, Gramenet, followed before Vilanova hung up his boots and decided to pursue a career in coaching. He became director of football at Terrassa, in Segunda División B, the third level of Spanish football, before, in 2007, the call came for the 42-year-old to return home. Guardiola, having just taken over of Barcelona's B side, wanted his friend and former youth team-mate to become his assistant. The move would mean dropping down a division, but Vilanova was not deterred.
Guardiola and Vilanova achieved an instant promotion with the B side and soon after were promoted themselves, given the task of leading the first-team in the wake of Frank Rijkaard's departure as manager. That came at the end of the 2007-08 season and the rest, as they say, is history.
It is now Vilanova's task to build on the excellent foundations Guardiola put in place at Barcelona over the past four seasons and as someone who played a key role in the construction, he will now exactly what to do. For the same reason, gaining the trust of the players should not be a problem, although whether he can lift their morale after a season in which the Champions League crown has been lost and the La Liga title is likely to be surrendered to Real, is an entirely different matter. Vilanova has accepted the challenge, though, and having fully recovered from surgery to remove a life-threatening tumour last year, he cannot be accused of lacking courage. The task ahead could prove to be his most daunting.
The Catalan club suffered two consecutive defeats - 1-0 at Chelsea and 2-1 at home to Real Madrid - before the Blues knocked them out of the Champions League at the semi-final stage on Tuesday.
The former Blaugrana midfielder will manage the Camp Nou side’s final few matches of the 2011-12 campaign before handing over the reins at the end of the season to assistant Tito Vilanova, and Di Matteo believes the pressure of managing Barca may have influenced Guardiola's decision.
“He knows what he does,” the Italian coach told reporters on Friday. “He’s a fantastic person.
“He’s had such tremendous success and he has decided what is probably best for himself, his career and maybe his family.
“I would say the pressure [got to him]; you have that in every club because of different targets but you have the pressure in his position.
“What a coach, what a manager he is. If he’s decided to not want to continue at the end of the season, he’s a great guy and he’s a young man as well and he’s still got many years ahead of him.”
Guardiola’s 13 trophies in four years at the Nou Camp is a phenomenal and unprecedented run of success, but the Italian doubts the Spaniard will be able to replicate his achievements with Barcelona at another club.
Di Matteo said: “I think he’s a role model as a coach for every young manager,” the former West Brom boss added.
“What he has achieved in such a short period of time I’m not sure anyone else can actually replicate that.
“History tells us that it’s difficult to replicate the culture of a club into a different club.
“So he might be the first to do it but if you look back at the history of football it’s proven very difficult to do it.”
Having stepped up from assistant manager when Andre Villas-Boas was fired at the start of March, Di Matteo has become a popular choice for the managerial job full-time.
The Italian remained focused on the task at hand when asked by reporters where he stands on the issue, saying: “Nothing has changed from my point of view.
“I’m still very happy to be able to get this club to the end of the season and then this club will make a decision on what is best for the club.
“Like six weeks ago, I’m very relaxed about that [his future]. It’s irrelevant at this point of the season.
“What is important is that the spirit of the players is good and we are feeling positive and we just have to try and keep this momentum going until the end of the season.
“It’s amazing that this group of players have responded so positively to the difficulties that we’ve been faced with this season.
“It’s proving a difficult season for us and we’re looking now at finishing fourth and we have to play two finals. So ultimately you have to try and finish the season successfully.”
Gary Cahill had to come off the Nou Camp pitch after 12 minutes on Tuesday with a hamstring problem and Di Matteo confessed the club are unsure when the centre-back will be fit again.
“At the moment we hope that he’s going to recover as quickly as possible,” he added.
“That’s our hope and that’s what our aim is with the medical department. When he’s going to be fit we cannot say at this moment in time.”