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Barcelona says Tito Vilanova will have surgery to treat relapsed tumor

For the second time in two years, Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova is stepping aside from football to take care of his health.

FC Barcelona manager Tito Vilanova. (AP file photo)
FC Barcelona manager Tito Vilanova. (AP file photo)Read more

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — For the second time in two years, Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova is stepping aside from football to take care of his health.

Vilanova will have surgery on Thursday and undergo several weeks of chemotherapy after doctors discovered a recurrence of a throat ailment, the club said Wednesday.

The 44-year-old coach underwent an operation to remove a tumor from the saliva gland in November 2011 when he was Pep Guardiola's assistant at the club. He returned ahead of schedule 15 days later.

Vilanova will likely spend four days in a hospital before undergoing chemotherapy and radiation therapy for about six weeks, the club said.

The statement said Vilanova could be able to remain in charge of the team while undergoing treatment.

"During this time, depending on his evolution, Vilanova may be able to combine treatment with his work regime," the club said.

Barcelona President Sandro Rosell and sports director Andoni Zubizarreta later held a press conference where they gave Vilanova their full backing as the club's coach. Players Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Carles Puyol and Victor Valdes were all in attendance.

Rosell said that Vilanova told his players about his condition before Wednesday's training session.

"Tito is strong and we are convinced that he will be back soon," said Rosell. "We have absolute confidence in our team and staff and that they are equipped to overcome this."

Zubizarreta said that assistant coach Jordi Roura would take over the team in the meantime and coach Barcelona in its Spanish league game at Valladolid on Saturday.

Zubizarreta said that the club has not considered handing the team over to a new coach, and was adamant that rumors Guardiola would be asked to come back were unfounded.

"Tito is our coach and will continue to be our coach," he said. "Jordi (Roura) will be on the sidelines for Valladolid, but all the rest is pure speculation."

Roura has been on Barcelona's coaching staff since 2009, sharing in the success of Vilanova and Guardiola.

Like Vilanova, Guardiola and many of its current squad, Roura is a product of Barcelona's "La Masia" football academy. He debuted for Barcelona under coach Johan Cruyff and played 10 games for its first team before a knee injury hampered his progress.

This will be Roura's first time in charge of a first-division club. He has coached lower-division sides in the surrounding Catalonia region, and was the assistant coach of Japanese side Yokohama Flugels.

Vilanova took over as Barcelona's coach from Guardiola last summer after passing medical checks.

Wednesday's announcement came one day after the club solidified its future with all-time top scorer Lionel Messi, playmaker Xavi and team captain Puyol all signing multiyear contract extensions.

"We will continue forward," said Zubizarreta. "We were going to celebrate the contract extensions of three players today, but we will have time to do so with Tito."

Under Vilanova's guidance, Barcelona has made its best ever start to a season, winning a Spanish record 15 of its first 16 league games. The club leads the standings with 46 points, nine ahead of Atletico Madrid and 13 in front of archrival Real Madrid.

Vilanova's son, Adria, used his Twitter account to give thanks for the support being offered his father.

"Thank you all for your support, you are truly great, everything is going to work out," he tweeted.

Earlier Wednesday, Barcelona canceled meetings with the club president and journalists after reports of Vilanova's illness emerged. Several hours later, the club issued the statement confirming the medical situation.

"Very sorry to hear the news," Xavi said on Twitter.

News of Vilanova's setback was met with an outpouring of support from the Spanish sports world.

"All my strength and support to Tito Vilanova," Spanish tennis star Rafael Nadal said on Twitter. "We are all with you so you may overcome this new step."

Madrid issued a statement expressing its "support, sympathy and affection" for Vilanova, his family and the club, offering its best wishes for "his speedy recovery."

Madrid coach Jose Mourinho poked then assistant coach Vilanova in the eye during a melee at a Spain Supercup match between the two clubs in August 2011. Vilanova responded with a shove. Since then, their relations have been cold, but cordial.

This is the second case of a serious illness affecting Barcelona's squad in recent years.

France defender Eric Abidal underwent surgery to remove a tumor from his liver in March 2011. He returned in time to help Barcelona beat Manchester United in the Champions League final in May.

Abidal had to stop playing again last spring when it was determined he needed a liver transplant that he underwent in April. On Wednesday, Abidal returned to his first full practice with the team since the transplant.

"Today we were expecting to have many reasons for happiness, above all the news about Abidal, but then a black cloud appeared to hide the sun," said Zubizarreta. "We hope that it will move on soon and the sun will shine tomorrow.

"I am sure that when (Vilanova and Abidal) are back together again in the dressing room they will share a special look."

Under Guardiola, with Vilanova as his assistant, Barcelona won 14 of a possible 19 titles, including two Champions League titles and three Spanish league crowns.

Guardiola suggested Vilanova take over for him when he decided to take a hiatus from football last summer. Guardiola always shared credit for building the most successful team in Barcelona's 113-year history with his assistant.

Guardiola dedicated his FIFA coach of the year award last year to Vilanova, saying: "Tito, this one is for you."

While lacking Guardiola's charisma and charm, the soft-spoken Vilanova has been an excellent strategist and ensured the team keeps getting the most out of the seemingly unstoppable Messi. The Argentina forward has scored 90 goals in 2012, surpassing Gerd Mueller's 40-year-old milestone of 85 goals in a calendar year.

Vilanova recently gave an interview to Catalan television in support of their campaign to raise funds for cancer research. He spoke of his earlier illness and seemingly rapid recovery.

Vilanova said the toughest moment was when he left the doctor's office after the diagnosis and immediately thought of his children, aged 14 and 17.

"I focused all my efforts on moving forward," he said. "I started to run, run, run and I have spent 10 months running nonstop.

"My philosophy has always been based on the idea that nothing is too important," he said. "The only important thing is your health."


Associated Press writer Harold Heckle in Madrid contributed to this report.