Ernesto Valverde hasn’t had many mistakes this season, but he might have made one on Thursday night. With Barcelona looking to secure their fifth successive Copa del Rey final, the former Athletic Bilbao decided to field Gerard Pique. It quickly became apparent that the centre back was some way short of full fitness.
On the night, it mattered little as Barca claimed a 2-0 win at the Mestalla to set up a meeting with Sevilla in April. It was another routine victory for a side who are strolling through the competition in Spain this season. But what might the long term impact of that win, or more specifically the decision to play Pique in that win, have?
It was obvious from the very first whistle that Pique wasn’t quite right. By the 83rd minute, when he was eventually subbed out, the 31-year-old was visibly limping. “We thought it was time to risk him with this game, but as the game progressed I noticed an overload and did not want to risk anymore,” said Valverde afterwards.
This was a risk Barca didn’t need to make and the Catalans must hope they have got away with it. The loss of Pique to injury would test the Catalans. It’s one of the few things that could open the door to any rivals who still maintain slim hopes of catching Barcelona at the top of the Liga table. As has been demonstrated in previous seasons, the Camp Nou outfit have a lot riding on the fitness of their best centre back.
However, Barcelona might be better placed than ever before to cope with an injury to Pique. The Spanish international was replaced by January signing Yerry Mina on Thursday night, with the Colombian looking the part in the 10 minutes or so he was on the pitch. More difficult tests will come his way, but Mina is viewed by many as one of the brightest young, defensive talents in the game right now.
There’s also Thomas Vermaelen, who has, to the surprise of many, forced his way into the first team reckoning at Barca this season. The Belgian filled in for the best part of two months while Samuel Umtiti sat injured on the sidelines, forming a partnership of his own with Pique. The former Arsenal man is currently recovering from an injury of his own, but is expected be back in full training this week.
By modern standards, Barcelona actually have a rather small squad. While Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid can call upon a number of different options in every position, the quality of Valverde’s squad is concentrated in more specific areas. But for the first time in a generation, the Catalans have depth in defence.
In the immediate term, it’s true that an injury to Pique might well give Valverde a problem. Umtiti is already suspended for Sunday’s home match against Getafe, and as already mentioned Vermaelen is still recovering from injury. Even if the latter is fit enough to play, it’s likely that Mina will start his first game as a Barca player. Valverde surely would have preferred to ease him into things.
Looking at the bigger picture, though. The Camp Nou side are well-equipped. Even in the full back positions, Barca have Jordi Alba and Lucas Digne at left back and Sergi Roberto and Nelson Semedo at right back. In goals, they have Marc-Andre Ter Stegen and Jasper Cillessen to choose from. They are covered right across the backline. This might mitigate any loss of Pique at this stage of the season.
Of course, this isn’t to say that Barcelona wouldn’t be better off without the 31-year-old. Pique is still their most accomplished, most vocal, most charismatic centre back. They are a poorer team without him. But should it come to finding a replacement, Barca have a number of options. They haven’t been able to say that for a while.