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May 2, 2013

Is Neymar really the cure for Barca's ills?

Judging by countless reports over the past few months, the transfer of Neymar from Santos FC to FC Barcelona seems to have become a formality, with both parties allegedly having signed a pre-contract agreement and the player guaranteed a handsome 40 million euros ($52 million) as a welcome gift by the Catalan giants.

However, the supposed move is under scrutiny after Barcelona suffered a routing as emphatic as the one they administered to Santos in the 2011 World Cup Club final -- a game after which Neymar didn't hide his admiration for the Blaugrana's style.

An uncomfortable question should be ringing in Barca's ears after the Champions League humiliation versus Bayern: Do they really need Neymar?

Tomas: Barca's loss messy without Messi Report: Bayern finishes CL job

As harsh as it sounds, the question evokes the famous "want versus need" debate. At first scrutiny, the Catalans are dealing with a much bigger problem -- an alarming scarcity of centre-backs -- than firepower upfront.

This season, Barcelona has scored more than 140 goals in all competitions. Even though 44 of them were courtesy of Lionel Messi, one can hardly say there is an accuracy crisis at the Camp Nou. At the back, however, things have been flimsy, with the 65 goals conceded already far past the 2011-12 mark of 48.

It's true that they have suffered crucial injuries. The loss of Carles Puyol and the already converted centre-back Javier Mascherano (a midfielder by birth) forced Tito Vilanova and understudy Jordi Roura to improvise left-back Adriano in the heart of defense. But shouldn't this signal a stronger need to go shopping for a defender rather than a striker who has shone within the Brazilian borders only, regardless of what promise Neymar offers for the future?

Some might say the solution is simple: buy both. However, reality has bitten hard. In the last transfer window, Barcelona lost the financial tug-of-war for the club's two main targets, Thiago Silva and Javi Martinez -- yes, they also detected the need to give Sergio Busquets help in defensive midfield -- to Paris St. Germain and FC Bayern Munich, respectively. They also apparently failed to lure David Luiz from Chelsea in 2011, even when the Brazilian seemed to be struggling with criticism from the English media.

While that might sound quite strange given the fanfare that marked the latest Deloitte "Money List" in which the Catalans pipped Manchester United for second place in the financial rankings, it should be reminded that the analysis does not take debts into account. Barcelona's IOUs have been estimated at around 320 million euros ($419 million) in a report released by the club last year, and everybody knows that European clubs are being forced to deal with UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations as well as the continent's broader economic reality. Nevertheless, Neymar is a political card that FCB president Sandro Rosell is ready to play as he bids to secure a new mandate ahead of the 2016 elections. The Brazilian striker is undoubtedly a golden goose in terms of PR and marketing, having topped the latest "Most Marketable Athlete" rankings compiled by SportsPro magazine, and his arrival at Camp Nou would certainly be followed by a symphony of fresh revenue.

But the argument that Rosell might be too obsessed with this signing shouldn't be dismissed. "Rosell must think twice before gambling on a player that has not proved himself yet in Europe in a moment where there is a blatant imbalance in the squad," a source linked to the Catalan club told me recently.

It's also important to point out that Neymar is far from enjoying life at the moment. Although financially secured by the generous sponsorship package that allowed Santos to keep him in Brazil and fend off other clubs in the past, Neymar has faced fierce criticism from media and public; the striker was singled out for harassment by supporters during the Selecao's home friendly against Chile.

One could argue that Barcelona has a need for a new striker given that Alexis Sanchez and David Villa have reportedly fallen out of favor after several poor displays; when Messi's extraterrestrial skills are not taken into account, Cesc Fabregas has been the Blaugrana’s leading scorer this season, with 10.

But it was the defensive fragility that, no pun intended, was more striking in Barca's demolition at the hands of Bayern. It was also worrying to see how an unfit Busquets didn't have a proper understudy. The 19 million euros ($25 million) paid for Alex Song now seems ill-advised, which also brings interesting questions about Barca's transfer strategies (for more, read this).

Though Barcelona represents an elegant ideal in modern football, its primordial need these days is muscle, not flair. Thus, when they do finally spring Neymar out of Brazil, they should seriously consider reserving a seat on the plane for a player like Atletico-MG's Rever, Cruzeiro's Dede or even Gremio's Fernando as well.

Fernando Duarte is a U.K.-based Brazilian football expert who has followed the Selecao for 10 years and regularly features as a pundit for media outlets in Europe, South America and Asia. He's a Flamengo fan and can be found on Twitter @Fernando_Duarte.