Cancer-battling Vilanova set for Barca return

MADRID (AFP) - Barcelona expect to have coach Tito Vilanova back at the helm following cancer surgery as they return to league action after the winter break with a local derby against Espanyol on Sunday.

Although news that Vilanova had a recurrence of a tumour on a saliva gland sent shockwaves around the Catalan club, the impact has been limited by the stoppage over Christmas.

After a successful operation he has missed just one game, an away victory against Valladolid where his assistant Jordi Roura took charge and Barcelona extended their record start to the campaign to 16 wins from 17 games in La Liga.

Vilanova returned to the training ground this week where fullback Eric Abidal, who has had his own battle with cancer, is also on the comeback trail.

"Tito and Abidal are both examples of fighting spirit. They are examples to follow for all that they have been through and yet at the same time they have always been there to help the club and their team-mates," said goalkeeper Victor Valdes.

"They give us a big boost and the energy to keep going season after season and to continue the success. We all hope that they are well and happy.

"We now have a derby game and they are always important at home or away but for those of us who are from here we are used to facing Espanyol. On a professional level it is a big match and we will give them full respect.

"There is still a long way to go in the title race as we haven't even finished the first half of the season although we do have a good lead. It is a very competitive league and there are a lot of points at stake."