A key presence during FC Barcelona's most successful era, Tito Vilanova has passed away at 45.
He gained renown as Josep Guardiola's trusted lieutenant before successfully assuming the first-team reins in 2012. The former Barça youth-team product oversaw a seamless transition, a record-breaking start to the season setting the Catalan giants on course for a 22nd Liga title.
He never made his first-team breakthrough at the club as a midfielder, Vilanova moving on, finding playing opportunities at RC Celta de Vigo, RCD Mallorca, UE Lleida and Elche CF among others. He could not stay away from his boyhood club for long, however, returning to coach the Blaugrana's 'Cadete B' team in 2001/02 – Lionel Messi, Gerard Piqué and Cesc Fàbregas were among his students.
He had stints in various capacities at other Catalan sides, before finding himself back at Barcelona as assistant to Guardiola with the club's B team in 2007. After leading them to the Spanish third tier, the pair were promoted to first-team duties where they went on to mould a side admired the world over for their style and on-field successes.
Over the next four years Barcelona won 14 trophies, including three Ligas, two UEFA Champions Leagues and two FIFA World Club Cups. When Guardiola announced his decision to step down in April 2012, the club turned to his assistant to continue that winning legacy. He had a dream start, with Barça achieving a Liga record first half of the campaign: 18 wins and a draw.
Vilanova was already ill. He underwent an operation to remove a cancerous tumour from his salivary gland in 2011 and had further surgery in New York in December 2012. He was back in Spain to guide the club to Liga glory but in July last year, Barcelona announced that the coach would be leaving his role to undergo further treatment.
Vilanova's untimely passing at the age of 45 will be felt throughout the footballing community and beyond.
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