This is a bridge too far, even for Carles Puyol. Every time the doctors say that Barcelona's captain will be out of action for four weeks, or six, or eight, he's back again in half the time. So much so that one wit joked, "the day Puyol dies he'll only be off work for three weeks." As October started, here was yet another example: the prognosis for returning from a knee ligament injury was four to five weeks, the reality was barely a fortnight. Puyol was in the starting XI for Barcelona's trip to Benfica in the Champions League on Tuesday.
Good news, everyone agreed. Not so much because of Benfica but because of Real Madrid. Puyol was back just in time for Sunday's Clásico. He even had 90 minutes to get up to speed. That made what happened next even more cruel. With Barcelona winning 2-0 and 20 minutes left, Puyol jumped for a header and crashed down on his left arm. It was hard to watch. The arm went floppy, pointing the wrong way. Puyol was carried from the field and loaded into an ambulance. Sedated, he was able to join the flight home, but the following morning it was confirmed. He suffered a dislocated elbow.
The prognosis is for Puyol to be out for eight weeks. Which, given that it's Puyol, may prove to be five weeks. But it certainly won't be five days. He will, Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova confirmed, miss the Clásico. So striking were the images, so complete is Puyol's commitment, that the messages of support poured in immediately. If anyone didn't deserve this, it was Puyol. Yet beyond the personal, there is a footballing reality: Puyol's absence against Real Madrid is huge.
Puyol leads Barcelona's defense. For all the precision and technique of the club's approach, Xavi insists that the captain is vital. Center-back mate Gerard Piqué tells stories of Puyol screeching at him to focus. Never mind that the team is up 3-0 with 30 seconds to go. He never, ever lets anyone rest. He is, they say, pesado. Heavy, insistent, hard-working. There is something almost pathological about his will to win. And, Piqué admits, it is contagious. The pair has become close friends -- the original odd couple.
Puyol brings concentration, aggression and pace to a defense that, by the very nature of the way Barcelona plays, faces risks; it gets exposed rarely, but when it does, it tends to get exposed completely. He is the axis upon which the back four hinges, pulling the line up and dragging it across (especially to the right to fill the space left by Alves). Without him, Barcelona is simply not the same side. Without him and Piqué, who is also injured and may not make it back in time for Sunday, it potentially has even greater problems.
For all the other fascinating ingredients that surround this Clásico -- the ongoing internal battles at Real Madrid and, with the Catalan president planning to defy the Spanish central government to push for a referendum, the potential for this to have huge political significance -- the future of the league will be decided on the pitch.
At the end of last season, Jose Mourinho complained that the Clásico had coincided with the semifinals of the Champions League; as a result this season, it is earlier. Too early to draw definitive conclusions about either side. Just as the Super Copa is a difficult gauge: Barcelona was superb in the first leg, Madrid superb in the second.
All over the pitch there are intriguing issues. Ángel Di María has been Madrid's best player this season. Luka Modric gives Madrid a little bit of Barcelona. Xavi remains vital; the succession still lingers. There has never been a midfielder like him. Messi has gone three games without a goal, but his "bad game" is everyone else's perfect performance: he has provided four assists in the last two matches alone. Cristiano Ronaldo said he was "sad" but has scored six already. And the accusation that he did not perform against Barcelona has definitely been debunked. Sergio Busquets, too, has been impressive, even if fewer see it.
The absence of Piqué and Puyol is hugely significant. Barcelona's "defense" is not just about the back four, and over the last few years they have turned some of the clichés and truisms on their head: they protect themselves with possession, not "heroic" last-gaps tackles. But the side is built through the back four, too -- its positioning, its ability to bring the ball out, its alertness to danger. And when teams can bypass the midfield to expose them or pressure the defense directly, they have on occasions looked vulnerable. Without Puyol and Piqué, all the more so. The decision not to buy a specialist defender during the summer is baffling.
Against Sevilla, Barcelona played Javier Mascherano and Alex Song at center back. To the left, Jordi Alba -- a creative left midfielder converted to an impressive left back, one of the revelations of Euro 2012. To the right, Dani Alves -- the man for whom "defender" is a woefully inadequate definition, and a man whose form has dropped markedly this season. Mascherano's conversion to center back -- he talks of a "re-education" and of "un-learning" the game -- has been largely successful, although he was at fault for one of Madrid's goals in the second leg of the Spanish Super Copa at the Bernabéu, a goal almost embarrassing in its simplicity.
Alex Song's conversion may yet prove successful, too. So far, though, it has not. It is not about seeking out specific errors -- although he was startlingly weak on Sevilla's second goal, scored by Álvaro Negredo -- but about looking at his overall game. And, overall, he was consistently in the wrong place, invariably 10 yards further forward than he should be. He looked, in short, like what he was: a man playing out of position.
Jose Mourinho can hardly have failed to notice. He has tried many different approaches against Barcelona and mostly failed. But in the last few matches, Madrid has pressed higher and pressured Barça's back four, not letting them settle. They have been swift in transitions, too, pushing Barcelona back into the corners and hitting the space behind the back four early. Although Madrid had the advantage of the sending off in the Super Copa, they had already scored by then and created a handful of clear chances. For Mourinho, possession is a red herring. For Barcelona, it is everything. To paraphrase Johan Cruyff's words: "If I have 100 percent of the possession, then at the least I'm going to get a 0-0, aren't I?" But no team gets 100 percent of the ball. Not even Barcelona. This will be a colossal test for Song and Mascherano.
Neither side has played at their best yet. Where Madrid got away with that last season, so far this season they have not. Barcelona has demonstrated drive and determination -- it has come back to win four times already -- but the very fact that it has had to is striking. Barcelona has not yet had the flow of previous campaigns. Madrid has, by Mourinho's own admission, played poorly. And while Barcelona's defense looks vulnerable, Madrid's position is even more so. Madrid has dropped eight points already -- two-thirds as many as it dropped all last season. It cannot afford many more mistakes. Lose to Barcelona, and an 11-point lead opens up. Too much. Even in October.