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Barcelona

Can Barcelona overcome injury crisis ahead of UCL and Clasico?



The “butterfly effect” which Barcelona president Joan Laporta imagined when he mortgaged chunks of the club’s future so he could immediately invest a couple of hundred million euros in transfer fees and wages, was that of an isolated, unattractive footballing larva transforming into a beautiful, colourful, much-admired creature. However, the impact which the brutal injuries suffered by Ronald Araujo and Jules Kounde on international duty threatens to have is the infamous kind: where the flap of even the smallest set of insect wings, at the wrong time in the wrong place, can cause catastrophic, ever-expanding consequences.

Sometimes also called “chaos theory,” the butterfly effect proposes that while in literal terms the flapping of tiny, multicoloured wings can’t cause a storm on the other side of the planet, apparently small events can nevertheless catalyse a chain reaction for things to go disastrously awry in non-linear, complex systems.

Do you see the parallels with Barcelona now?

Barcelona have Gerard Pique, Andreas Christensen, Marcos Alonso, Hector Bellerin, Eric Garcia and Frenkie de Jong, in particular, to cover for the absences, likely to be at least a month in Kounde’s case and until late December or early January for Araujo, who is to be operated on. Most clubs would kneel down in grateful prayer to have such resources at their disposal. Let’s be clear about that. No need for anyone to take out the world’s smallest violin and play it in mock sympathy for the Camp Nou club.

However, in terms of causal connection, these injuries definitely have the capacity to see Barcelona eliminated from the Champions League at group stage for the second consecutive year (something they’ve not suffered for 21 years); to thus cost the club up to €100m in lost revenue; to derail their LaLiga campaign via defeat in the imminent Clasico against Real Madrid and the knock-on damage to morale and form if the Champions League group spirals out of control; to vastly damage Barcelona’s intended financial recuperation (they recently posted profits of €98 million for the 2021-22 campaign and predicted another €271m in the current season); and to leave them still further manacled by LaLiga’s Financial Fair Play rules over the next two or three transfer markets.

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All those threats can be classified as near and present danger. One further side effect, depending wholly on how Xavi Hernandez decides to play his cards, could be Pique announcing his retirement from professional football. Equally, in this chaos theory there’s the potential for Barcelona to somehow punch their way out of this tight corner; to absolutely revitalise their self-respect and confidence; even for Pique to be called to the rescue, to shine, to re-declare his availability for Spain and, who knows, give Luis Enrique some food for thought before he names his World Cup squad in November.

Bear with me, all will be explained.

The first sequence that the flapping butterfly wings can directly and negatively affect (for those who care about the Blaugrana at least) is Barcelona’s next five games, three of which are against Inter Milan (away, then home) and Real Madrid (a Clasico at the Bernabeu.) Pretty brutal. Do Barcelona retain the capacity to take five points from those matches — drawing the two away tests and winning against the Nerazzuri at Camp Nou? Potentially.

But would Araujo and Kounde, if fit, have started all three games and played crucial tactical roles over and above their individual excellence? Unquestionably. Araujo adds the speed and strength which the high defensive line, and occasional experiment with three at the back favoured by Xavi, depend upon absolutely.

Against Inter, he’d have been deployed to mark the newly fit Romelu Lukaku. Against Madrid he would, as in the past two Clasicos (each of which Barcelona have won with a clean sheet), have been pitted against Vinicius Jr. Tough, indefatigable Uruguay right-back against lightning-fast, lavishly talented Brazil attacker in what’s fast becoming a wonderful mano-a-mano sideshow to the main feast.

The Clasico will be depleted, at least for the neutral, given the absence of that emerging, fascinating battle.

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As for Kounde, this season’s stats demonstrate his match reading, pace, interceptions, tackling, ability to bring the ball out from the back and, oh, he’s already produced three assists in five matches. By the way, Mallorca fans, no way am I ignoring Barcelona’s reduced capacity to deal with Vedat Muriqi’s aerial and physical threat on Saturday so long as the 6-foot-4 Kosovo centre-forward is fit on returning from international duty.

How Xavi aligns his remaining defenders, and how they perform, obviously now becomes the key to avoiding the apocalyptic damage suddenly threatening Barcelona’s fledgling revival.

Firstly, Garcia. Xavi appreciates his attitude, his facility with the ball and continuously praises his core abilities. Nevertheless, the 21-year-old is small for a centre back (5-foot-11), can be beaten for pace if turned by a striker, and has started only 184 of Barcelona’s past 360 competitive minutes. Garcia plays ultra-tight to his man when Barcelona are defending with a high line because if he lets a rapid striker receive possession, turn and sprint, the likelihood is that he won’t keep up.

Even the slightest error of timing or positioning leaves the threat of bookings, red cards and rivals streaming through on Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s goal. Lukaku, if fit and chosen at San Siro next week, will be licking his lips in anticipation when he watches how easily Breel Embolo totally pinned and bossed Garcia for Switzerland’s winning goal against Spain in Zaragoza at the weekend. The Belgian striker is better, bigger, stronger and far more experienced at the top level than the admittedly impressive Embolo, whose goal authored Switzerland’s first-ever away win against La Roja.

Garcia and Christensen were, in fact, the starting central defenders in the past Clasico. But, take care. Anyone who doesn’t recall that Madrid were significantly shorter in match practice, fitness and sharpness because they’d begun their preseason schedule later is dramatically fooling themselves. That Clasico, won by Raphinha’s outrageous goal, finished with De Jong and Pique as the centre-back pairing.

Christensen, like Garcia, has a facility on the ball, arrived on a free transfer, which was a crucial element in the rebuilding which Xavi, Jordi Cruyff and Mateu Alemany engaged in this summer, but has shown quite the capacity for errors of positioning and concentration. He’s not used to playing out from the back in Barcelona’s style and he can be pressed into gifting possession. And if you go back and study his positioning, reaction time and athleticism when Bayern Munich scored their second goal, four minutes after taking the lead in Munich the other week, the Denmark international is fundamentally at fault.

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Inter and Madrid will have studied that detail intimately. The logical thing, now, would be for Xavi to turn to his World Cup, European Championship and Champions League winning ex-teammate, Pique, and say: “Geri, it’s time for your ‘Last Dance’ — lead the defence through this crisis.”

But, will he? Is he allowed to? “Will he” relates to the fact that ex-teammates do not always make great companions when one is elevated to managing the team — egos clash, delineating between the past and the present can be hard. Xavi and Pique, in habits, attitudes, ideology, personality and private lives are really united by only two things: love of their club and, in general, winning.

Sparks have flown this season. In private, but sparks nonetheless. “Is he allowed to?” refers to the idea that Laporta, and all of the bean counters at Barca, would like Pique to, voluntarily, end his contract, which is a huge financial outlay and runs until June 2024, by retiring. The idea that there might have been a message sent down to the coach saying: “limit his minutes, burn up his patience” relates to El Mundo’s recent claim that the defender earns around €28m gross/€15m net per season.

In this matter Pique, even aside from his tumultuous private life, might have scored a definitive own goal. Last April he told interviewer Jordi Wild, when talking about hanging up his boots: “It’s not just physical — it’s motivational. I’m not going to traipse around all the stadiums in Spain if I don’t have the right motivation for it. With all due respect heading for a stadium and pitch, where I’ve played 15 times already, for a 4 p.m. kick off, is very demanding mentally. I take it all match by match. Fortunately, so far, every couple of years I’ve found small things which keep re-motivating me. But many times I’ve found it hard to keep motivated, even at the club I love.

“Not for all the money in the world would I go to another team. I know for 100% sure that I’ll retire here. I’ve always said that if I no longer ‘feel it’ I’ll walk away — whether I had two, five or 25 years of contract left. What’s the alternative? To sit unused in the stand or on the bench? No way. It’s been beautiful here, there’s no need to tarnish it. I want to leave while feeling that I’ve always been relevant.”

Pique is still, easily, good enough for Xavi to build Barcelona’s defence around him — particularly as he’s comfortable playing at left centre-back despite being right-footed. His all-consuming will to win, his match reading, his passing out from the back, his vast experience all weigh well against the fact that, at 35, he’s no longer “peak athlete.”

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But will Xavi trust him, set aside the constant media obsession with Pique’s separation from wife Shakira and potentially disappoint one or two of his own new signings? Might the club insist to its coach that Pique as a starter should remain a last resort? If Pique is forced to be nothing more than a bench-warmer when Araujo and Kounde are out, respectively, until November and after the World Cup, wouldn’t that give him the final message that his time, regardless of remaining contract, at Barcelona is up?

The coming weeks before the World Cup were already laden with new tests and opportunities for the biggest clubs in Europe. But, suddenly, with these two shattering injuries there’s a huge spotlight on Barcelona, on their young coach, on their interesting but still fledgling transformation.

Will it be Pique to the rescue or adios forever? Will it be character and resourcefulness getting Barcelona out of such a sticky Champions League situation, or further vast financial losses? And humiliation or resistance when it comes to El Clasico?

Stay tuned.



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