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Barcelona’s defense has been decimated with injuries, and many wonder why in the world a reliable center-back was not signed over the summer. Looking ahead to the rest of the season, there is reason for optimism and the potential for an extraordinarily deep defensive unit.
Without a doubt, FC Barcelona are very thin at the back. Long-time starters Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué, and Eric Abidal are all injured. While Piqué has played much of the season, Abidal has yet to see the pitch, and Puyol can't seem to get through a match without picking up an injury. Javier Mascherano has bravely held down the back line, alongside the unlikely faces of Alex Song and Adriano.
Many fans have questioned the club's decision not to sign a true center-back over the summer, and rightly so. After all, it's not like defensive depth is a new issue. Even back in Barcelona's Champions' League win over Manchester United in 2009, Toure Yaya was forced to play fullback thanks to injuries and suspensions. Ever since, it seems we've read the words "makeshift center-half" far too often.
Yet as Piqué returns to action, and both Eric Abidal and Carles Puyol work tirelessly to return to form, there's a very real possibility of a sturdy and deep back line for the critical phase of Barcelona's current campaign.
Gerard Piqué: Narrowly missing El Clásico one week ago, we should expect to see Piqué back on the pitch within the very near future-perhaps this Saturday against Deportivo. By all accounts, Piqué was in excellent form before going down with an ankle injury, and there's no reason to expect anything less from him going forward.
Carles Puyol: Dislocated his elbow in a freak injury against Benfica on October 2nd. Recovery was estimated at 8 weeks, which would be the end of November. Puyol has already switched to a soft splint, and if you had to bet on the over/under of 8 weeks, most would take the under. This man has incredible willpower, has already demonstrated his ability to recover from injuries, and looked absolutely dynamite against Benfica.
Return: By the end of November
Eric Abidal: Speaking of willpower, Eric Abidal had a liver transplant in April, and is already training again. There's no specific timetable for his return, but judging by his movement in this video, and knowing his competitive nature, it'd be hard to imagine Abidal missing too much more of this season.
Return: Early 2013
Let's imagine a time three or four months down the road, with Piqué, Puyol, and Abidal at Tito Vilanova's disposal. Imagine the virtually undefeated pairing of Piqué and Puyol locking down the back line, clearing off crosses and generally grasping the match firmly by the pelotas. In reserve, providing rest and rotation during hectic match-heavy stretches, are Mascherano and Abidal. This is a highly optimistic but not terribly unrealistic picture of the near future. Could anyone ask for a stronger defense?
Alex Song deserves brief mention here. Bought as a replacement for the departed Seydou Keita, he's seen limited action as a center-half, to mixed reviews. Whether or not he was the right player to buy remains to be seen, but clearly his intended role was as a late-game lead-protecting substitute, and we may yet see him excel in this role.
Barcelona currently sit 8 points clear of Real Madrid at the top of La Liga, and are all but qualified for the knockout round of the Champions League. In other words, they've done more than just stay afloat despite all the injuries. Piqué's return should immediately solidify the entire club, and Mascherano seems to be getting better and better at center half. Injuries are inevitable, but it's hard to imagine things getting any worse in that department.
While an extra center-half surely could have come in handy against Real Madrid, should the above scenario play out (Puyol and Abidal healthy again), FC Barcelona's management may look awfully shrewd-and a little bit richer-next summer when the Neymar sweepstakes commence.