This has been a pretty spectacular start to the new season for Barcelona. They have won all their league games so far and the first two in the Champions League. The only blemish has come in the Spanish Supercup, which they lost on away goals to Real Madrid. Yet, yet, there are some worrying signs that all is not quite as rosy as they appear.
On the plus side they continue to create lots of goalscoring chances and so far have managed to score at least one goal in each game. They should though in reality have scored more. And this is one slight worry. As ever a lot is down to injuries to key players. Iniesta has been out for some weeks and now Thiago is to lose two months through another injury. And of course up front their main goalscorer (Messi apart), David Villa has still not fully recovered from his serious injury. He is back playing, but usually for only 15 or 20 minutes. At least he has not lost his goalscoring touch. But Barça almost certainly need him to be playing more often. The other main attackers, Alexis and Pedro, are never likely to score as many goals as Villa can. Another plus sign is that Cesc Fàbregas may have recovered his goalscoring touch. Three goals in the last two games is a much needed fillip for the player and for the team. As Messi gets ever closer marking, Cesc’s goals will become crucial if Barça are to win the league and the Champions League.
The main cause for concern is the defence and in particular the central defenders. So far Barça have shown an alarming tendency to lose goals at a rate unheard of before. Once again a lot of this is down to injuries. Both Piquė and Puyol have missed most of the season so far due to injuries and Puyol will now miss the next two months at least after his horrible arm break in yesterday’s match. This has meant that Barça’ central pairing now consists of two midfielders. While Javier Mascheranno has now played in defence for over a year and has done so with distinction, this has been almost always accompanied by the more experience Puyol or Piqué. Now he has to do so with the wholly inexperienced Alex Song, the new summer signing. It was expected that Song would primarily provide cover and competition to Busquets in central midfield, not that he would become a key central defender.
How has this come about? Here we get into the apparently byzantine world of Barcelona’s transfer dealings. Over the summer we were assured by the media that Barça’ number one priority was to sign a left back, to replace the injured Abidal, and an experienced central defender to cover for the then injured Piqué and Puyol. Jordi Alba was signed as the new left back, but despite lots of names being bandied about, no new central defender has arrived. One can only assume that Tito Vilanova and his coaching staff were confident that the various youngsters in the squad could step up if necessary. And there are three young central defenders in the squad – Marc Bartra, Andreu Fontàs and Marc Muniesa, the youngest of the three. Unfortunately Muniesa is another player to succumb to the Barça jinx of serious injury and will now miss most of the season. Both Bartra and Fontàs have been around the first team squad for a couple of seasons, so the coaching staff should have been fully aware of their capabilities. Bartra even played in some of the pre-season friendlies. But when the competitive matches began, not a sight has been seen of them on the pitch – nada de nada.
What has gone wrong? It beggars belief that it was only in mid September, after the transfer deadline had passed, that Vilanova & Co realized that neither Bartra nor Fontàs were up to the level required by Barça for competitive matches. This makes it even more extraordinary that they did not sign an experienced and reliable central defender instead of Alex Song. Song is a good signing who brings height, strength and skill to the squad, but as midfielder. It is an enormous risk to have to rely on him to form a reliable partnership with Mascheranno, who remember is himself not a natural defender. One can only speculate, but perhaps the tightness of budgets, even for clubs like Barcelona, is the reason for this situation. Presumably there were no convincing central defenders available for the kind of money that Barça had at their disposal after signing Alba. It was better to get a good and reliable midfielder than pay above the odds for an unconvincing defender. I guess that may have been the thinking in the deep recess of Camp Nou. And to be fair, nobody could have predicted the succession of misfortunes that have befallen Puyol. It was still a risky option and this coming weekend the match against Real Madrid will put the new central defence of Song and Mascheranno under the most serious of examinations. Real have already shown how effectively they can attack Barça’ defenders, even with Puyol and Piqué. I guess they will be relishing the opportunity to get at Song and Mascheranno. Even though the match is in the Camp Nou, this will be Barça and Tito Vilanova’s most difficult challenge yet. Will Vilanova spring some surprise for this match? We await the match with increased excitement and anticipation.