Friday, September 16, 2011

The end of the world as we know it ? Or at least Barcelona

Mark Twain once famously said "Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated". After Tuesday's draw with Italian champions AC Milan, perhaps we cannot say this of Barcelona FC. Without trying, alliteration rolls off the tongue when you describe Barcelona's method of football: power, pace, precision and passing. Now we can add another - paper-thin.

In them match prior to Tuesday's encounter, Barca lost new signing Alexis Sanchez to a long-term hamstring tear. Just before half-time against the Rossoneri, influential midfielder Andres Iniesta succumbed to a similar injury. Captain Puyol has barely played so far this year and his partner, the classy Gerard Pique is still to return from injury, leaving the centre-back positions in the hands of midfielders Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets.

To write Barcelona off would of course be a nonsense. But it must be said that replacements Pedro and Cesc Fabregas, while obviously no slouches, are not of true World's-Best quality. With Barca's squad possessing only implied - rather than proven - depth, the next six weeks will determine this year's La Liga title. Should the champs falter, the ominous shape looming in their rear-view mirror is shaded in the black and white of Real.

With all their talent, if Barcelona are to stumble this season it will be during the next six weeks. Fortunately, their schedule is hardly rough - their trickiest match is away to Valencia next weekend. With the quality of their incoming replacements it's possible that they take maximum points from these upcoming matches, irregardless of who plays. But with four first-XI players out, they haven't appeared this fallible since their Champions' League semi-final escape against Chelsea in 2009.

Neither their game or mindset is up for question, but their bodies. As defensive midfielders, Busquets and Mascherano are very good; as centre-backs they are slow and easily beaten in the air. Fabregas, Thiago and Pedro will bear the load in the midfield; the hope will be that Puyol and Pique will return to full health soon. Some small saving grace comes in the form of los merengues' fixture list: Madrid face troublesome ties at Espanyol and nouveau riche Malaga.

As top football leagues across Europe become increasingly fought out between two teams (who said Scottish football wasn't progressive?!), injury looks like becoming a prime indicator for title favouritism.

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