BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova returned to the touchline on Sunday for his first game since undergoing throat surgery to remove a second tumor from a saliva gland.
Vilanova was back on Barcelona's bench alongside assistant Jordi Roura for the Catalan capital derby against Espanyol, guiding his side to a 4-0 thrashing of its crosstown rivals to maintain its nearly perfect Spanish league campaign.
Roura was seen shouting orders to the players early on, but Vilanova gave commands in the second half. Vilanova thanked all those who had supported him during his operation and hospital stay. "I always try to be positive. What happened to me can happen to anyone," said Vilanova. "I want to thank all those who have supported me through these times and all the doctors who have treated me. Also, my players and this club for the way they have handled it.
"This team has had many tough blows in recent years," he added in reference to the liver cancer and subsequent liver transplant needed by defender Eric Abidal, who recently returned to practice. Pedro Rodriguez scored two goals while Lionel Messi and Xavi Hernandez added two more to decide Sunday's match in the first half hour.
"We wanted to dedicate the win to Tito and we were able to do so," said Pedro. "He has been through some complicated days, but the important thing is that he is well and we are happy that he is back with us.
"He told us before the game that we should take the game as it comes and just play like we always do, being true to our style of play." The 44-year-old Vilanova missed one match for the Spanish leaders after undergoing surgery on Dec. 20. He will continue to have chemotherapy and radiotherapy while returning to his coaching duties.
"This isn't over," Vilanova said. "There will be days when I can attend practice and others that I can't." In its first season under Vilanova since he took over from Guardiola, Barcelona has set a league record start with 17 wins and a draw to begin the season.
In 2011, Vilanova underwent an operation to remove a tumor while serving as Guardiola's assistant, returning to work after an absence of 15 days.