Sometimes, it seems that Barcelona build their team each summer thinking – We’ve got Lionel Messi, the best player in the world; we’ve got Xavi and Iniesta, the best midfielders in the world. The rest will work itself out. And then, you find yourself heading into the Clasico, to play against Real Madrid, without a natural centre back.
It’s not Tito Vilanova’s fault that Carles Puyol suffered from that freak arm breaking incident, falling badly after trying to connect with a cross. These things happen. But the fact that Barcelona don’t have a single player to cover for him and Gerard Pique, in doubt for the Saturday clash, is some sort of failure.
Last year Guardiola scrambled in face of injuries, turning both Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets into centre back and toying with some new tactics to cover for injuries that he just didn’t have the personnel to handle. This season, Vilanova didn’t correct these issues – bringing in a left back and Alex Song doesn’t fix that problem. Song may be very helpful to Barcelona in the future, but he’s no centre back. Mascherano has so far been making one huge mistake per match, usually a costly one. Sergio Busquets isn’t moving from the midfield, and has become more of an attacker this season in an adjusted new role.
On the offensive side of things, it was clicking for Barcelona at the Estadio da Luz. Things were a tad jittery in the first half, somewhat of over-motivation which caused too many turnovers, but the second half was classic Barcelona. Cesc Fabregas, thanks to his brace at Sevilla, feels confident again and voila (!!), he’s scoring when in one on one situations. Knowing that Andres Iniesta is back has to be a comforting notion for both Xavi and Lionel Messi, although he probably won’t start against Real Madrid, not yet.
Lionel Messi? If he’s not scoring, which he hasn’t in three consecutive matches, unheard of when it comes to him in recent seasons, he sets up the goals. The familiar sight: Messi picks up the ball about 30 meters from goal, 3-4 defenders collapse on him from all sides, Messi finds the player performing the trailer into the box, goal. Alexis, who spoke about the need to perform better individually, finally scored a goal, making things much easier from the sixth minute onward.
If Benfica players were trying to break legs in the second half, late in the match, it means that Barca can be pleased with their performance. They were annoyingly good and hard to handle, although it’s still not quite clear why Sergio Busquets was sent off. Maybe it’s karma from their visit to Sevilla. It’s going to be just as testy and aggressive against Real Madrid, maybe even more than usual.
Something is wrong in the way Barcelona was built this season. Last campaign should have been a warning that too short of a squad might be a big problem down the road; that having Lionel Messi score more than 50% of your goals and set up another 25% isn’t healthy. You need other players to step up; you need backups, like every top club in Europe has. Barcelona, on paper, when fully healthy, are better than anyone anyway, but not with their defense looking like this, as vulnerable as this. Lionel Messi can do a lot of things – score, assist and even be a playmaker. But central defender? Not in this lifetime.