MADRID Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova will take charge of the team for their opening game of 2013 at home to city rivals Espanyol in La Liga on Sunday after making a quicker than expected recovery from a throat operation.
The 44-year-old needed a second round of surgery just over two weeks ago after having had an operation to remove a tumour from his saliva glands in November 2011.
"Tito will be in the dugout," his assistant coach Jordi Roura, who is standing in while Vilanova is out of action, told a news conference on Saturday.
"He still has to receive treatment, but he is very well, in high spirits and very strong, and this is the most important thing."
Vilanova oversaw training on Wednesday for the first time since his December20 operation, despite not being expected to return until mid-January.
He began a course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy after his release from hospital on December 22 and club president Sandro Rosell said he would alternate work with his treatment.
He was sidelined for around three weeks after the surgery in 2011 before returning to his job as assistant to Pep Guardiola and then taking over when his close friend stepped down at the end of last season.
Leaders Barca have made a record start to the campaign winning 16 of 17 league games, drawing just the once, and have opened up a 16-point advantage over third-placed champions Real Madrid.
Sunday's visitors, who are 18th, are slowly turning the corner under new coach Javier Aguirre and are unbeaten in their last four outings.
"Although we have a 16-point lead (over Real), we know nothing is decided yet," Roura added.
"The later the first defeat comes the better but we will try to continue at the same rhythm as we were doing before Christmas.
"Derbies are always difficult because of the rivalries that exist and we are coming back after the holidays and it isn't easy to get back into the swing of things straight away."
(Reporting by Mark Elkington, editing by Mark Meadows)