By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Forwards, it is often claimed, decide games, but it is defenders who win championships. So while all eyes are on the amazing array of attacking talent at Barcelona and Real Madrid, including the usual suspects Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, it may be the men further back – or lack thereof – who will define the destiny of La Liga in 2012-13.
The Blaugrana‘s problems are well-documented. The Catalan club decided against signing a specialist centre-back in the summer and have subsequently seen Marc Muniesa, Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique sidelined by injury – as well as long-term absentee Eric Abidal. Muniesa, of course, was never going to play much of a part, but the Masia graduate would have been useful in the absence of the other two centre-backs.
Pique is set for a timely return from a foot problem after missing the Clasico – in which Barca began with the untried partnership of Javier Mascherano and Adriano, and then lost another of their back four, Dani Alves, with a hamstring strain. Puyol, meanwhile, is out for two months with a dislocated elbow and, although he is currently negotiating a new deal, the club’s captain never appears far from the treatment room these days.
In the absence of Puyol and Pique, Alex Song has been filling in alongside Mascherano at times, meaning the Catalans have started some games with two midfielders – plus Alves and Adriano – at the back. It’s hardly a natural back four.
Sergio Busquets is another alternative and the midfielder played twice at the back for Spain in the recent international break. Should he drop deeper, however, he will need to be replaced by either Song or Mascherano in his customary position.
Tito Vilanova has admitted that Song was his signing, not a player recommended to him from above, and despite his far-from-faultless form in the transfer market, it remains difficult to imagine predecessor Pep Guardiola recruiting the Cameroonian. Yes, Seydou Keita left in the summer, but a look at the list of priorities at Camp Nou should have shown quite clearly that a defender was what was needed above all else – not yet another midfielder who can play – at a push – in defence.
In that respect, Barca failed to learn the lessons from last season when the likes of Busquets and Mascherano were exposed away from home or against top opposition. Why take the risk again? La Liga was lost for the Catalans away from home last term as they dropped 18 points on the road. And it could happen again, despite their sublime start to the current campaign.
However, Tito’s team take a healthy eight-point lead over Real Madrid into the eighth round of Primera Division games and, even though Los Blancos claimed a deserved draw to stop Barca in their tracks in the recent Clasico, they remain under pressure to stay in touch.
And Jose Mourinho’s men have problems of their own following an international week in which they lost not one, or two, but three full-backs to injury.
First, Fabio Coentrao picked up a groin problem in Portugal’s 1-0 defeat to Russia in Moscow, then Marcelo injured his metatarsal in training and, finally, Alvaro Arbeloa was laid low with a muscle strain as Spain drew 1-1 with France on Tuesday.
The Portuguese and the Spaniard will be out for a number of weeks, while the Brazilian is sidelined for several months, leaving Mourinho with a selection headache for Saturday’s match at home to Celta. The 49-year-old could choose to switch Sergio Ramos to right-back, bring in Raphael Varane alongside Pepe in the centre and use either Nacho or youngster Jorge Casado on the left, or bring in Michael Essien on the right and move Ramos across to the other side. He has options, but with Madrid already eight points behind and faltering on set pieces, it is a decision he must get right. Marcelo, meanwhile, has claimed he will keep smiling despite his injury. And Madrid fans will hope their team can smile without him, too.
So it may be early days in the title race, but defensive difficulties could yet decide the outcome of La Liga. And the team that copes the best may well be the one celebrating the title come next June. Tito, Jose – over to you.
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