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Vilanova, 18 Players Back as Barça Resumes League, CL Action

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A bit of catching up is necessary as many things have happened since 18 FC Barcelona players took a break from club play to participate in FIFA World Cup 2014 qualifying games for their countries, international friendlies, or Spain's Under 21 team, playing a total of 2,480 minutes of international football.

First let's note the return of head coach Tito Vilanova after a two-month stay in New York where he underwent treatment for a recurrent cancer of his parotid gland. In his first season at the helm Vilanova led Barça to the best start in La Liga history, 18 wins in the first 19 games, with a draw, before leaving for New York on January 21. Vilanova will lead Friday's training session and is expected to be on the bench when Barcelona returns to league action by visiting Celta Vigo on March 30.

Eight Barça players played for Vicente del Bosque on Spain's national team in the qualifying games against Finland and France. "La Roja" had a rare bad day against the modest Finns, being held to a 1-1 draw in Gijon, but redeemed itself with a 1-0 victory over France in Paris, regaining control of the group. Two players who have been much criticized this season were the heroes in Paris--Pedro, scorer of the lone goal, and goalkeeper Victor Valdé s, who made three incredible saves, including on a one-on-one with Bayern Munich star Ribéry.

Pedro is a mystery. He has scored only 5 goals in 23 league games for Barça in this campaign (and none in seven UEFA Champions League matches), but has 10 goals in 10 appearances with the national team since September 2012. He injured his calf at the end of the game in Paris and will miss at least 10 days.

Left back Jordi Alba injured his hamstring against Finland, missed the France game, and his status for the April 2 CL quarterfinal at Paris Saint-Germain is uncertain. Unavailable, probably for both games against PSG, is captain Carles Puyol, who had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee before the intermission.

The good news, for Spain and Barça, is the return of Xavi, playmaker extraordinaire and unchallenged field marshal. Messi may score all the goals in the world, Iniesta can get all the accolades, but Barça goes how Xavi goes. He is the metronome that dictates the cadence of tiki-taka, his genial vision is matched only by his altruism. Barça became the great Barça when Xavi decided-with or without Pep Guardiola's input--that the best way to make this team extraordinary is the valorisation of Messi, the world's best player and scorer.

Messi and Mascherano played the entire games against Venezuela and Bolivia. Messi scored his 32 nd goal for Argentina, and is only two goals behind Maradona for third on the all-time list, and assisted on Higuain's two goals in the 3-0 win over Venezuela. He and the albiceleste struggled for a 1-1 tie at La Paz, good enough to remain at the top of the South American qualifying. Argentina extended the halftime to about 25 minutes, reportedly because its captain was throwing up from the altitude malaise . Playing official FIFA games at an elevation of two miles is soccer's equivalent of Russian roulette and it must be stopped.

Messi had a great chance to score the winner six minutes before the end when he was alone with the Bolivian keeper and couldn't find the right timing. He can only hope to have a similar chance against Celta, the only La Liga team against which he hasn't scored this season. With his 18-game league scoring streak on the line, he won't miss.

Vladimir Moraru played soccer for 15 years and has watched it for 60. He hasn't seen a player like Messi and a team like FC Barcelona.

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