Former Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova dies at 45

LIONEL Messi led the tributes to his former coach Tito Vilanova, who has died of throat cancer at the age of 45.

Tito Vilanova pictured during Barcelona's clash with Paris St-Germain in April 2013. Picture: AFP/Getty

Lionel Messi led the tributes to his former coach Tito Vilanova, who has died of throat cancer at the age of 45.

Vilanova led Barcelona during the 2012/13 season after taking over from Pep Guardiola, but was forced to resign last summer because of ill health.

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Messages of condolence poured in from around the world for a man who also spent four years as Guardiola’s assistant at the Nou Camp, playing a key role in coaching one of the greatest teams of all time. Barca won three La Liga titles, two Champions League crowns and two FIFA Club World Cups under the duo.

Vilanova was first diagnosed with parotid gland cancer in November 2011 and the disease returned in December 2012. He was away from the team from December, undergoing surgery and treatment in New York as his assistant Jordi Roura took charge, but returned in late March and still won the La Liga title again and with a record points haul before stepping down in July last year.

Messi, the star of his team, said on his Facebook page: “A person difficult to forget. I will always remember you. All my love to the family of Tito.” Vilanova, a former midfielder who spent his playing career largely in the Spanish second division, first assisted Guardiola with the Barcelona B team before the pair stepped up.

Their team became renowned for their passing and pressing game, with midfielders such as Xavi and Andres ­Iniesta at its heart.

In sole charge, Vilanova led Barca to their highest-ever points total for a La Liga season during his single term in charge, their 100 points a joint record for the division with Real Madrid.

Iniesta posted a picture of himself with Vilanova on Twitter, writing: “I have no words. You have been and will be an ­example, proud to be part of your life. I’ll never forget. Much strength to your family. Rest in peace coach. Kiss.”

Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho had ­several run-ins with Vilanova during his time at Real Madrid, infamously poking him in the eye in one clash.

Mourinho said on Chelsea’s Twitter account: “Tito Vilanova’s passing is a sad day for football, for Barcelona and most importantly for his family and friends.

“On behalf of everybody at Chelsea Football Club I send my deepest condolences at this most difficult time.”