MADRID (Reuters) - Tito Vilanova was still Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona assistant when he hit the headlines last August after Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho jabbed him in the eye during a touchline scuffle in the Spanish Super Cup.
Twelve months on he has replaced his good friend in the Barca hot seat and returns to face his tormentor this time as coach in the first leg of the 2012 edition at the Nou Camp on Thursday (2030 GMT).
Holders Barca arrive as King’s Cup winners and it is a first chance to measure up Vilanova’s side against the league champions, with tensions between the Spanish giants eased since last year’s low point.
A mass brawl between players at the end of the 2011 second leg resulted in three red cards while television images of Mourinho’s attack on Vilanova led to harsh recriminations.
Mourinho was eventually given a two-match Super Cup ban, and Vilanova one game for his retaliatory gesture, but both punishments have since been lifted by federation president Angel Maria Villar.
Mourinho, who had refused to apologise to anyone but Madrid fans for his actions, calmed the waters earlier this month by saying he was wrong.
Vilanova has also sought to put the incident behind him as he takes up the baton from Guardiola who swept up 14 trophies in his four years at the helm.
Barca made a flying start to their league campaign with a 5-1 mauling of Real Sociedad on Sunday, gaining an immediate advantage over arch-rivals Real Madrid who drew 1-1 at home against Valencia.
Vilanova’s league debut as coach was made all the sweeter by striker David Villa’s return from an eight-month injury layoff due to a broken leg to score the fifth goal of the night as a substitute.
Spain’s all-time leading scorer is still short of match fitness and is unlikely to start on Thursday, a similar scenario facing new signing Alex Song.
One man who will start, though, is the irrepressible Lionel Messi who netted twice and had numerous chances to complete a hat-trick.
The World Player of the Year, who scored an incredible 73 goals in all competitions last season, has a knack of finding the back of the net against Real and looked particularly sharp as Barca produced a high-tempo performance full of attacking menace.
“The team still has the same philosophy and style as with Guardiola,” Messi told Barca TV.
“The dressing room are still hungry for titles. I want to win everything we play for, like Tito. It’s tough but we will try.”
Messi’s and Barca’s snappy display contrasted with that of Real’s and their leading scorer Cristiano Ronaldo at the Bernabeu.
Albeit against stronger opposition, Real were slow to get into their stride while a quiet Ronaldo failed to fire a single shot on target.
“I am not yet 100 percent but I hope to get back to top form soon,” said Ronaldo.
His Portuguese international team mate Pepe is a doubt after suffering a hefty blow to his head in a collision with Iker Casillas and having spent Sunday evening in hospital as a precaution having momentarily lost consciousness.
Mourinho’s men won on their last visit to the Nou Camp when Ronaldo struck the decider for a 2-1 La Liga triumph that effectively wrapped up the title in April.
Although Barca held the edge in the ‘clasicos’ under Guardiola, Real have only lost once under Mourinho in their last four visits to Catalunya across all competitions.
The return leg is at the Bernabeu on Aug 29.
Editing by Tom Bartlett