Okay, it’s about that time.
For most top-flight football teams competing in domestic leagues, there comes a time in the season where the fog clears and they realize they’re face-to-face with a wall of stone. Inasmuch as this obstruction seemingly comes out of nowhere, the suddenness of it is uber-familiar. For Barcelona, this season’s stonewall emerged in the form of Lionel Messi going down with a groin strain in September’s 1-1 with Atletico Madrid.
Luis Enrique’s Blaugrana had an eerily similar roadblock just over a year ago, as the Argentine tore a ligament against Las Palmas causing him to miss two months of soccer. To be fair, Barcelona roadrunner’d through that roadblock last campaign, eventually going on to win their 8th Primera title in the last 12 years. This time, however, that wall feels a bit more reinforced and all-the-more unforgiving.
Barcelona’s early season struggles currently have them fourth in La Liga, behind Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, and Sevilla. That’s not good, even in October. What is good — at least, kind of — is that Messi has finally returned to training with the first-team, although he won’t be fully fit for this weekend. Next Wednesday’s Champions League encounter with Man City, however? Well, that bridge will be crossed later, although most of us can guess the answer. (Hint: He’s going to play.)
But Barca’s physio table is piled with much more than weakened Greatest Of All-Timers. Sergi Roberto, although a bit more of an under-the-radar commodity, has grown into a vital utility player for the Catalans, which is why his recent adductor strain picked up during international duty could prove costly.
Worry over the Catalan right-back’s injury has only been compounded by the recent unrest surrounding Aleix Vidal, who’s reportedly looking for a way out of Camp Nou stat. It appears that just when the ex-Sevilla wing-back voices his discontent, an opportunity presents itself. Here, at the very least, Barca’s woes could become Vidal’s much-needed break. Barring another cruel snub by Enrique, Vidal should start on Saturday.
The other crucial setback earned from the international break was Jordi Alba picking up a left thigh knock during Spain’s World Cup Qualifier against Italy last week. Though not viewed as serious, the injury should keep the left-back out of action beyond the weekend. Fortunately, both Lucas Digne and Jeremy Mathieu provide more than enough quality and experience to sufficiently deputize until Alba does return.
Then there’s backup goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen, who sprained an ankle on Holland duty and will be out for at least 3 weeks. This shouldn’t affect Barca’s starting eleven, as Marc-Andre Ter Stegen has solidified himself as Barca’s undoubted No. 1 in-goal. But bells will surely be ringing should something happen to the German.
And then there are the outstanding injuries that Barca are simply counting down the days and hours and minutes on. Ivan Rakitic’s ongoing achilles discomfort leaves the midfield without a key component. While the extended absence of Samuel Umtiti in defense becomes increasingly noticeable as Javier Mascherano continues to underperform alongside Gerard Pique. Umtiti, who strained a knee ligament last month in training, has all-but-cemented his place in Enrique’s defensive set-up. Reports have the Frenchman very close to returning to first-team action, with Saturday’s Deportivo clash not yet being ruled out.
To be sure, these injury accumulations should be viewed as warning signs for Enrique’s team. Not having their best players can obviously lead to lasting problems for Barca on the pitch, which is why cause for alarm is just. The truth, however, is that Barca’s failings in this young Primera campaign haven’t only been down to staffing, but also form.
While Messi and Umtiti have been key misses, their replacements in the form of Paco Alcacer, Arda Turan, Rafinha, Mathieu, and Mascherano — all mostly world-class talents — should be more than capable of dispatching the likes of Alaves and Celta Vigo (the two sides Barca have fallen to). In addition, ultra-gaffes from the ever-wild Ter Stegen and the strangely incompetent-as-of-late Sergio Busquets have been noteworthy catalysts in Barca’s point-dropping.
Last season, Barcelona nearly forfeited their Liga title charge when they allowed both Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid to erase a 12-point league table deficit in March and April. In the end, they were only able to hold onto 1st Place because of the lead they had initially constructed through the season’s early months. We’re currently in October, and Enrique’s men have built up no such advantage as-of-yet. In fact, they’re trailing both Madrid teams and a Sevilla side that may-or-may-not be in this summit scale for the long haul. There’s no leeway for Barca to have a nice autumn siesta. Now is the time. Now is that time.