Barcelona – Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova faced cancer surgery Thursday and six weeks on the sidelines but vowed to return soon to the Spanish league leaders.
“I will be away for a while but I will be back soon,” Barcelona sports newspaper Mundo Deportivo quoted Vilanova as telling his players after doctors told him he needed surgery for cancer that has returned to his salivary gland.
Vilanova, 44, has led Barcelona to their best league start ever but the club said he will be in hospital for four days and then need up to six weeks of chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
“We will have to try to go on as normally as possible but there will not be total normality because Tito is the coach and now for a few weeks he will not be there,” the club's president Sandro Rosell said late Wednesday.
But he insisted: “Tito is very strong and we are convinced he will come back to us soon.”
The news came at a dramatic moment for Barca, flying nine points high at the top of La Liga while their fierce rivals and title holders Real Madrid are suffering a malaise.
Jose Mourinho's Real are 13 points adrift in third place and rattled by reports of internal squabbles. Atletico Madrid are in second place, nine points behind Barcelona.
Barca's sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta said assistant coach Jordi Roura would stand in for the time being, acting as coach when the side travels to Valladolid for Saturday's league game.
Barcelona gave no indication Thursday of when the surgery would take place and when it would next give details of Vilanova's progress.
Messages of support poured in from sporting stars and even occupied the front pages of the fiercely partisan Madrid sports press.
“We're all with Tito,” said Marca, the leading pro-Real daily.
Zubizarreta rejected speculation that Barcelona's previous coach Pep Guardiola who left last season would step back in.
“Tito is the coach and continues to be the coach. Jordi Roura will be in the dugout at Valladolid but the trainer is Tito,” he told a news conference.
“What we have to do is pick ourselves up and keep on working.”
Real Madrid joined various sporting figures in Spain and abroad in wishing Vilanova well.
“Tito, everyone is behind you to beat this Ä the strength of football and people. It's impossible you will lose this match,” Real skipper and Spain international keeper Iker Casillas wrote on his Facebook page.
Vilanova has been Barca manager since the departure of his long-time comrade-in-arms Guardiola in April.
Vilanova underwent an operation to remove a tumour on his parotid gland Ä the largest of the salivary glands Ä on November 22, 2011 and was back at work as Guardiola's deputy just two weeks later.
One of the world's most successful football teams, Barca are riding high largely thanks to Argentine hitman Lionel Messi, who has taken his goal tally for the calendar year to a record-breaking 90.
Vilanova played only briefly as a professional in Spain's top flight, notably with Celta Vigo, before turning to coaching at the end of his career and finding his way back to the club of his youth. – Sapa-AFP