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Nov 17, 2006

Barcelona Injuries to Eto'o, Messi and Saviola have left Barcelona's season in the balance. It will take something special from the rest to limit the damage before they can recover, or reinforce.

Rewind to August, and the talk of Barcelona was whether Saviola would be surplus to the club's needs - a luxury. The Catalans were desperate to offload the Argentine, to the point that they even offered him a letter of freedom.
Barely three months later, injuries to Messi and Eto'o have left their attack crippled. Just as it started to look like Saviola would turn saviour, even he was sidelined.
There have been injuries previously too - Larsson, Motta, Edmilson two years ago, Xavi, and Messi last year - but it was spread over the pitch, allowing them to recover. Its three forwards this time, and with a wafer-thin forward line remaining, it looks very slippery.
Nobody was willing to consider reinforcements when Eto'o was injured - maybe rightly so, maybe not. They were still just as dismissive when Messi was ruled out. But within hours of that, Saviola's muscle problems came to the fore, and the tone started to change.
From a 'we don't know', it turned into a 'maybe', and now, Luque, Larsson and Palacio are firmly placed on the Catalans' radar.
Yet there is little they can do until January, as an emergency signing requires a five-month injury layoff. Barcelona's only chance was when Eto'o was injured, but they had no way of knowing that it could go so wrong.
That said, they were guilty of underestimating the Cameroon international's importance. You have to ask yourself if Chelsea would have signed a Drogba replacement, or if Real would have covered a hypothetical Ruud absence. The answer, unfortunately, puts Barca on the wrong side of the fence.
The Catalans now have four players - Ronaldinho, Gudjohnsen, Giuly, Ezquerro - for three positions, and must make do with that at least until January.
They still lead La Liga, but it's so close at the top that a couple of bad weeks could see them drop outside the top four. The problem, however, lies elsewhere. They must win both their remaining Champions League games to qualify for the knock-out stages, and it is not clear that they have an edge over a very dangerous Werder Bremen with the attack that remains.
It is surprising that even now - at a time when the club need to put their hands up and say: 'yes, we need to reinforce,' with no strings attached - sporting director Txiki Begiristain indignantly argues that Iniesta and Deco can also play in more advanced positions, conveniently forgetting that it is bite up front that is the real problem.
One understands that success has made them confident, and that has its positives, but there is a fine line between that and arrogance. Txiki continues to insist that Giovanni Dos Santos - arguably a natural replacement for Messi - should not be called up from the junior team, as it is more important he remains available for Barca B.
One more injury or suspension could leave them with absolutely no options on the bench, making two games a week almost impossible to cope with. Even if they are lucky hereon, the impact on the players still available will be felt come April, when thin squads start to burn out.
Ronaldinho and Giuly look set to play two games a week for the next two months, and one has to wonder whether Barca can even afford to compete in four remaining competitions - including the Intercontinental Cup.
There is only one way forward - damage control, followed by Larsson's arrival on January 1.
Barcelona have to put everything into the two Champions League games, even if that means dropping points in La Liga. The away clash against Levski Sofia isn't going to be a cake-walk, and Werder Bremen at Camp Nou on the final matchday will be even tougher. Not qualifying is not an option!


Once they have secured qualification, they can throw everything into the League, and hope that the Intercontinental Cup doesn't take a lot out of them. They must use their reserve team shrewdly in that competition, rather than allow their marketable stars to burn out for the sake of some extra publicity.
The only silver lining is that there are a few relatively easy League fixtures coming up, with the Real Madrid, Valencia, Deportivo, Zaragoza and Sevilla games all behind them, but they will only make the most of that if they set themselves up for it.
As for new arrivals, Palacio or Luque are both good players, but if they take two months to settle in, the very purpose is defeated. The Argentine can wait for the summer. Larsson, and only Larsson, can solve their problems.
But even before that, it is going to take something special, along with a lot of luck, for four players to fill three spots, and carry the team through to January without slip-ups. It could be Rijkaard's biggest test since the torrid four months at the start of his tenure three years ago!

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