Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova cut a consternated figure on the touchline of Benfica’s Estádio da Luz on Tuesday night as he saw his captain and defensive stalwart Carles Puyol stretchered from the pitch with a dislocated elbow during the visitor’s 2-0 win. Puyol had just been passed fit to play after recovering from a knee injury sustained a little over two weeks ago against Getafe.
It was a gamble on the part of Vilanova, and one that has backfired most unfortunately: the majority of first-game-back injuries stem from the original complaint. Puyol is expected to be out for two months, which gives Vilanova a problem in the medium term but is nothing short of a catastrophe in view of this Sunday night’s showdown with Real Madrid.
Undoubtedly, the reason Puyol was launched into the fray in Lisbon was the performance of a makeshift central partnership of Alex Song and Javier Mascherano against Sevilla last weekend. Both of Sevilla’s goals followed an error — Song was brushed aside too easily by Álvaro Negredo and Mascherano was caught out of position, possibly because he thought Song had him covered — and Benfica’s South American attacking trio of Rodrigo Lima, Bruno César and Nicolás Gaitán are more than capable of exploiting any defensive weakness.
“I have always said it; we have always had problems in central defense but we will get through it,” Vilanova stated after the match. “It’s not just a question of what Barcelona loses for the clásico on Sunday but also what it loses in terms of all the other matches.”
The Barça coach, who inherited a squad with little cover in central defense, noted that the team had often been obliged to “convert players into positions that are not theirs,” as is the case with Mascherano, a defensive midfielder at his previous clubs. Song, too, has operated more in midfield than defense, but if Gerard Piqué fails to recover from a foot injury, the Cameroonian will partner Mascherano in Camp Nou.
Vilanova may rue not acquiring a dedicated center half during the summer — and may well rectify that oversight in January — with Puyol no spring chicken and increasingly susceptible to injury, Piqué somewhat out of form and academy graduates Marc Bartra, Andreu Fontàs and Marc Muniesa having only amassed 12 senior games between them.
On a positive note Andrés Iniesta returned to action and the midfielder will be a welcome addition to Sunday’s teamsheet.