Barcelona's title quest hit by untimely defensive crisis ahead of Las Palmas
A quiet week at Barcelona could end with a bang if Luis Enrique doesn't find a solution to an untimely crisis in defence.
With Barca knocked out of the Champions League, the players were given a few days off to start the week, with the idea of keeping them fresh for Sunday's penultimate league game of the season against Las Palmas. However -- and not through any fault of those days off -- Barca coach Luis Enrique heads into the match with a quandary to solve: Who plays in defence at the Estadio Gran Canaria?
Catalan newspapers Sport and Mundo Deportivo agree that the Blaugrana's biggest priority this summer is to sign a right-back -- Arsenal's Hector Bellerin and Benfica's Nelson Semedo are the current favourites -- and took the opportunity of an early European exit and no midweek game to dedicate a number of pages to that search throughout the week.
The more immediate concern is who plays at right-back against Las Palmas? Aleix Vidal is out for the season with a dislocated ankle, and Sergi Roberto's fifth booking of the campaign last weekend means he misses the game through suspension. Throw in a mysterious injury for Jeremy Mathieu -- he has magically disappeared since the first-leg loss to Juventus -- and the last thing Barca needed this weekend was Gerard Pique coming down with a virus.
After spending the early part of the week watching the Madrid Open, in which he took the chance to talk about a proposal for a World Cup style event in tennis, he returned to Barcelona, but he didn't return to training. On Saturday, the club confirmed that he had been hospitalised due to "general sickness and stomach pain."
That leaves the first team with just four fit defenders -- Lucas Digne, Jordi Alba, Javier Mascherano and Samuel Umtiti -- and no right-back. Barca B defender Marlon Santos has also been included in the squad for Sunday's game, and Luis Enrique said the young Brazilian is an option to replace Pique. He's not a right-back either, though.
"There are many options: some are risky, others not so, but the players are ready to take on the challenge," Luis Enrique said in his pregame news conference, choosing not to bemoan the loss of key defenders. "It will be a nice challenge to work out how we get around this difficult situation."
Of those who flew to the Canaries on Saturday night, Mascherano is the only player who has played at right-back this season. He could play there again, with Marlon slotting in alongside Samuel Umtiti in a youthful centre-back partnership and Jordi Alba playing at left-back.
Another option is a return to a back three, a formation that worked so well in the comeback against Paris Saint-Germain but has been discarded lately. Luis Enrique, giving nothing away, said that is a possibility. If he does choose a back three, it will almost certainly be a case of Mascherano and Umtiti plus one.
It's a good job, and Luis Enrique says he's relishing the challenge of cobbling together a defence because the stakes could not be higher. Barca still lead Real Madrid at the top of the table, but they need Zinedine Zidane's side to drop points in their remaining three matches to stay there. Barca have just two games left, and two wins will only be enough to win their third successive title if Madrid don't pick up a minimum of seven points from their remaining fixtures: Sevilla at home followed by Celta Vigo and Malaga away.
Las Palmas will be no walkover, either. Luis Enrique recognises them as one of the league's best footballing sides, and they've demonstrated that over the past 18 months. They drew home and away against Madrid this season, and Barca managed only a narrow 2-1 win in Gran Canaria last year.
Picking a defence to face them becomes slightly easier when you have Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar in attack, though. If Luis Enrique gets the formula wrong at the back, it could develop into a 'you score, we score' kind of evening. If he gets it very wrong, the next week will certainly not be as quiet in Barcelona as the one that is just drawing to a close.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.