As Barcelona opened their campaign with a routine 5-1 defeat of Real Sociedad, Coach Tito Vilanova has the rare privilege of calling upon a near fully fit squad as he prepares for the first leg of Supercopa de Espana against Real Madrid this Thursday.
It marks a significant change from last year when former Coach Pep Guardiola had to contend with a raft of injuries during the early part of the season.
Fundamental to the health of the squad has been the pre-season schedule. The club organised a five-match programme spread over 18 days with a minimum of three days of recovery between each game. Crucially, these also all took place at venues located within a two-hour flight from Barcelona.
It was a different case last summer, when Barcelona participated in friendlies in Croatia and Germany before jetting off on a three-game tour of the US, which saw training interrupted by travel and searing conditions, as Guardiola complained heading into 2011’s Supercopa.
“We used to have pre-season in Europe, but now we tour. We have to adapt,” he said.
“The problem is that the heat prevented us from training, and has hampered the team’s level of intensity [in games], as has been proven. We really need more time to get to our peak of fitness. Maybe the legs can’t respond, but the mental attitude of the players will be important.”
Mentality saw the side defeat Real over the two legs last year, but it was little wonder that within a couple of weeks of the season beginning, Alexis Sanchez, Andres Iniesta and Ibrahim Afellay had all been sidelined by hamstring injuries, while other first-teamers Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique were also absent.
Tightness in the pelvic and hamstring region is a common ailment to be linked to long-distance travel and by the October international break last season, Barca had suffered eight muscle-related injuries – statistically a figure double that which they had suffered in any of the three previous years.
With fewer opportunities to rotate the squad as the trait continued through the season, Real Madrid’s seemingly better preparations had left them looking fresher in a title race that Barca would eventually come up short in.
This year, as Barcelona lead La Primera after the opening game for the first time since 1997-98, Vilanova has already admitted he has learned lessons from previous pre-seasons.
“The team has been training well, not doing a tour abroad has helped us. Watching the players train has reassured me,” he stated. It was important that the 42-year-old gradually reintroduced the Spanish national contingent back into action after their efforts for La Roja at Euro 2012.
A five-game programme has enabled that to happen and, combined with Lionel Messi’s first summer off for five years, sees confidence in the players’ shape higher than before.
With a healthy squad at his disposal, Vilanova has started his reign as Barcelona Coach by ensuring that the mistakes of previous summers, borne out of financial necessity rather than physical preparation, have not been repeated this year.