Why Barcelona & Madrid's defensive difficulties could decide the outcome of La Liga

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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Herrera: This is the best Real Madrid in history

Paco Harrera believes the current Real Madrid squad is the strongest the club have ever had and has pointed out their main threats.

Celta Vigo travel to the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday evening and even though Jose Mourinho’s side have been hit with a lengthy injury list, the Celestes‘ coach does not think it will affect them.

“This is the best Real Madrid in history,” he declared.

“Last year they were the top scorers, they beat you by knockout. This year they have started differently but they are recovering their style.”

The 58-year-old then reeled off a list of potential hazards to his team’s target of leaving Madrid with a surprise victory.

“They have the best goalkeeper in the world, Iker Casillas, the best central defender, Sergio Ramos, and one of the best central midfielders, Xabi Alonso,” he added.

“Cristiano Ronaldo? That’s different, him and Lionel Messi are the two best.”

Mourinho hints at Barcelona interest in Pepe

Jose Mourinho has hinted that Barcelona were interested in signing Pepe.

The 49-year-old made the claims at Friday’s press conference ahead of Real Madrid’ s clash with Celta Vigo on Saturday, following weeks of dispute between the fierce rivals over the player’s alleged conduct in matches between the two teams.

When asked about media speculation that Barcelona had compiled videos of Pepe committing fouls in Clasico matches he said: “I know nothing about a video of Pepe. I do know that while he was renewing his contract two big clubs pushed for him not to renew.

“I do not know if one of those big clubs was the one who recorded a video,” he added.

Madrid go into this weekend’s clash missing several players, with seven of the squad picking up injuries during the international break.

The defence has been worst hit, with Marcelo, Fabio Coentrao, Raphael Varane and Alvaro Arbeloa all missing.

“We have some different choices to cover our positions, people that will adapt to the situation. It’s a perfect day for you to give me the line-up,” Mourinho joked with the press.

The former Inter coach then responded to speculation that he would draft in the services of youth player Nacho to fill the void.

He said: “I’ve thought of Nacho at left-back of course, but he’s just another one. I’ve already decided who will play there.

“Just a couple of minutes after the national matches ended I had decided who would start,” he concluded.

Mourinho also took time out to say his side are more similar in style to Borussia Dortmund than they are to Barcelona.

“It doesn’t make sense. You can compare Barca with Arsenal, they have similar styles, but not with us. You could compare Borussia Dortmund with Real,” he stated.

Mourinho keeps Paris Saint-Germain door open

Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho has again spoken out about the growing speculation that he will someday manage Paris Saint-Germain.

The 49-year-old had been linked with the post following Les Parisiens shaky start to the season, but a change in form means they are only three points off league leaders Marseille.

PSG are yet to be defeated domestically this season which has calmed the pressure on Carlo Ancelotti and Mourinho insists that recent comments he made about the PSG post have been skewed by the media.

“I do not exclude PSG. Or almost anything. But the last time I was asked about PSG, I said initially there was a great coach and they did not need me,” he told France Football.

“They [the media] have manipulated what I have said previously. I like where I am and I like it here. That is the truth.”

On reports that he will someday go back to England to coach the Real Madrid manager said: “Without predicting the future, I’m just saying that I think going back to England is a possibility, but at the earliest it would be 2016.”




No one is bigger than Real Madrid, insists Valdano

Mourinho Valdano

Mourinho y Valdano, juntos en la asunción del técnico en el 2010 / GettyImages

Jorge Valdano has responded to remarks that Jose Mourinho made about him to the official Real Madrid media outlets.

The 57-year-old has been at odds with the Portuguese manager ever since the latter’s arrival, the two famously vied for control behind the scenes at the club, with Mourinho eventually winning and leading to Valdano’s sacking in 2011.

Speaking to Spanish TV show El Larguero he said that having spent so much time with Madrid in various capacities he has learnt that it is the club which is most important and not comments made between the hierarchy.

He said: “After playing, coaching and being a director at the club. I know that the club is most important, and that nobody has exclusivity over the way the club makes people feel.”

The Argentine did reserve some pleasantries for the Real Madrid coach adding that he brings particular Real Madrid qualities to the club.

He said: “I like Mourinho he brings values that help make Real Madrid what they are.”

He also commented upon the nasty atmosphere of recent El Clasico’s and the behaviour of certain players in those matches. When asked about Real Madrid’s Pepe he said: “In those matches there was confusion that all people eventually became worse than they were.”

Valdano, responding to growing speculation that Neymar will sooner or later end up at the Santiago Bernabeu, spoke highly of the Brazilian star.

He added: “He’s the most imaginative player. A very special player. Cristiano has the power. Messi has many abilities, but Neymar dribbles at you ten times, and in an imaginative and effective way.”