The return of Eric Abidal is huge. It's not necessarily a Champions League-winning return, of course, but it's a big step in the right direction for a couple of reasons, most of which have to do with Carles Puyol and David Villa. As the previously undisputed first-choice starting left back until the discovery of a liver tumour, Abidal certainly inspires confidence on his own, but his absence has also coincided with injuries to backups Maxwell and Adriano and that has meant a reshuffling of Barça's line-up.
These circumstances have meant the promotion of Andreu Fontas, ostensibly a centre back, and the use of Puyol out wide in bigger games, but have also forced the use of Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets as central defenders. Abidal’s return will at least give Guardiola another option and even if Puyol is not completely fit (he has missed the last three league matches) it solidifies a defence that has looked shaky at times over the last month.
Fatigue is a very real spectre for the team given the immediate turnaround from the World Cup and the lengthy schedule thanks to involvement in three competitions. As of writing this, the team has played 58 matches (37 league, 12 Champions League, 9 Copa del Rey) and has three more to get through before a well-earned break. Not that Dani Alves and Leo Messi will get a real break as they’ll head to the Copa America. For comparison, Manchester United have played 57 matches (37 league, 12 Champions League, 5 FA Cup, 3 League Cup), so it’s not an especially stressful schedule relative to everyone else, but I imagine there is some fatigue in their ranks as well (though I could be wrong).
Abidal’s return allows rotation in the centre back position, giving Mascherano a chance to step up and play his more natural defensive midfield role, though as a substitute since Sergio Busquets, cleared of racism allegations, is the undisputed starter. Pique can then revert to the right side of defence where he is much more comfortable and capable. In the recent Espanyol and Levante matches he was on the left of centre and was beaten several times when drawn out of position. Part of that is a lack of confidence in Fontas and part of it is a lack of positional awareness, but it should be noted that Levante’s goal came thanks to a blatant (and uncharacteristic) error from Pique on a clearance rather than any particular tactical mistakes.
No doubt there will be some tactical and formational manoeuvrings by Alex Ferguson during the Champions League final, but a center back pairing of Pique and Puyol with Alves and Abidal would be hard to break down because of their experience playing together, confidence in each other, and the speed available down the wings that Fontas and even Maxwell can’t provide. Adriano has proven adept in that department, but his lengthy injury will keep him from playing if Abidal is at healthy.
If Abidal can return to full form before Wembley (it’s funny that it’s “the Rome final” and “the Paris final”, but it’s not “the London final”), the team could see a massive increase in the number of shots on goal. That might sound odd based on the inclusion of a left back that rarely attacks (and has scored just 2 goals in his professional career), but Abidal is extremely good at providing support behind-the-scenes to other defenders who want to attack. He often stands back on corners to cut out counterattacks, slides into the middle when Pique goes on a long run up front, and pulls defenders out of position on the left wing, providing more space in the middle for Villa or Messi.
Abidal’s absence has coincided with Villa’s scoring slump and while that may be coincidental (Villa didn’t score against Levante when Abidal was on the field for an hour, for instance), it seems right.
The same argument can probably be made for Puyol’s absence, which has coincided with this run of form as well (and it’s somewhat funny to point out Barça’s deficiencies in these matches as they lost just 2—though that is also precisely the number of matches the team lost during the rest of the season), but Abidal plays in the position that is far more instrumental in opening up space for Villa.
Pep is rumoured (by the Spanish tabloids, those trustworthy sources) to be unwilling to start both Puyol and Abidal together as the left side of defence, which would mean Mascherano playing in the center. As discussed above, Pique and Puyol are much better together and Abidal’s speed could be effective in neutralizing either Nani or Chicharito. That could be an argument for starting Abidal in the middle and Puyol on the left where he was for recent spate of clásicos.
Regardless of whether he starts or not, Abidal’s return helps to cement the back line and provides both the offense and defensive with much-needed cover.
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