Timing, they say, is everything. One month ago Barcelona had just been knocked out of the Copa del Rey on their own patch by Real Madrid and were days away from losing to them at the Bernabeu in the League too. And it wasn't just Los Blancos causing them problems, Milan had beaten them – convincingly too – 2-0 in the first leg of their Champions League Last 16 tie.
“The team has gone for many days without a leader,” said President Sandro Rossell at the time – referring to Tito Vilanova being in New York for cancer treatment. “This has seen the freshness dip.”
Sergio Busquets felt the same way too: “His absence is felt and day by day it is more difficult.”
People began to talk of a crisis. Every great team has to have a dip they said, football operates in cycles after all. La Blaugrana's counter argument was perfect – well it was less of an argument, more of a performance. Despite holding a lead in La Liga of more than 10 points since Christmas, their season hinged on the return leg against Milan – lose to the Italians and even the League-winning champagne wouldn't taste that good.
They won 4-0. David Villa returned, so too did the intensity of their pressing in the final third – but there was another return hidden earlier in the day which would no doubt have acted to spur the players on even more. The return of Tito.
Barcelona announced in the hours leading up to that vital Champions League clash that their Coach would be back towards the end of March. They announced that he would be ready to return to the bench for next round of Europe's most prestigious competition, should they progress. The timing was everything.
This week, the man who only took over in the summer, returned to Catalonia. ‘Tito returns today’, screamed Barcelona-based newspaper Mundo Deportivo on Tuesday, followed on Wednesday with ‘Welcome home Tito’.
It was anticipated he'd take his first training session on Friday afternoon, but it is unknown when he'll take up his position on the bench. Rumours suggest he won't travel to the Celta Vigo game on Saturday, but will go to Paris on Tuesday for the Champions League quarter-final.
Cristian Tello has been quick to enthuse the significance of having their figurehead back: “I’m very pleased with his return. We need him – his absence has been noticeable because the presence of the head Coach is always very important.”
Since the win over Milan – sparked by the news of Vilanova's homecoming – Barca seem to have taken on an extra impetus. A season that was threatening to falter, despite being in cruise control in La Liga, is now looking rosy again. Two trophies seem a real possibility, and not just any two, thetwo. The 44-year-old couldn't have timed it any better.
People said anyone could manage Barcelona, but Tito's illness has proved that's not the case – as Jordi Roura will probably agree. La Blaugrana may not have known quite how much they needed a leader until this absence. Since Vilanova's been gone they've learned that they certainly do though and that they are now lucky enough to have him back.