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Zac Lee Rigg: Puyol's injury throws Barcelona's defense out of joint ahead of Clasico

Vilanova will likely name two former midfielders in the heart of his defense to take on Real Madrid after captain Puyol's sickening elbow injury midweek.

Alexis Sanchez squatted and stared at the grass. A few yards away, Carles Puyol lay prone on the pitch, his left arm bent in ways it was not designed to bend. Puyol's face contorted. Sanchez looked like he might be sick.

The dislocated elbow put Barcelona's defense out of joint ahead of the first Clasico of the league season.

Barca finished off an efficient 2-0 win over Benfica for a second straight Champions League win -- following six straight Liga wins -- in a somber mood.

"It is annoying and makes you not want to celebrate at all," Javier Mascherano said.

Puyol was making his return from a knee injury. He's completed 90 minutes only once this season, and missed Spain's successful Euro 2012 after knee surgery. Now he's out for two months.

"Puyol has suffered a couple of injuries this season that we might say weren't exactly normal, such as a broken cheekbone, and now a [dislocated] elbow,” Tito Vilanova said.

IN NUMBERS
Puyol's problems
2 The skipper's dislocated elbow is his second injury of the season
4 The defender has managed just four games so far this term, out of a possible 10
6 He is expected to be sidelined for six weeks, just like after his knee operation in the summer
99 Games played for Spain, despite missing Euro 2012 through injury
563 Puyol has appeared over 500 times for Barca - but how many more matches does he have left in him?
If Puyol picks up injuries through fearlessness, his shaggy bangs doubling as blinders to danger, his 34-year-old body is less resilient than before. He started 23 league games last season; 17 the year before that.

Compounding Vilanova's stresses ahead of the Real Madrid game is that Gerard Pique sprained his left foot early in the game against Spartak Moscow on Sept. 19. Even if he's fit, he won't be game-sharp.

"We are always having problems with central defenders," Vilanova said. "It has forced us to convert some players in terms of position."

Javier Mascherano, formerly a defensive midfielder, has one of the two center defensive spots locked down. Back in 2010, Pep Guardiola hauled the Argentina captain off at halftime of his Barcelona debut. Since then, El Jefecito has folded himself wholly into Barca's system. Before he left, Guardiola called Mascherano the club's best signing in four years.

Alex Song is undergoing a similar transition. At Arsenal the Cameroonian slotted into the midfield. He developed his creative side last year, assisting 13 goals. Since joining Barcelona this summer he's featured as a haphazard defender, meandering to all the wrong spots. Regardless, he'll likely start alongside Mascherano against Real Madrid, which, don't forget, plundered Barca to the tune of four goals over two games to win the Spanish Supercopa in August.

Vilanova keeps name-dropping youth team defenders, such as Marc Bartra, in press conferences, but never drops their names into the starting lineup.

Barcelona has the best youth program in the world. La Masia products Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta rank among the favorites for the Ballon d'Or. But the team hesitates to trust the defenders it develops. Both Pique and Jordi Alba had to establish themselves at other clubs – Manchester United and Valencia, respectively – before Barca bought them back.

No current defender has graduated straight from the team's youth system since Puyol broke through in 1999 – 99 international appearances ago – as a bombastic right back. A game against the team that broke the record for goals scored in Spain's top flight last season probably isn't the ideal spot to blood a youngster, either.

Still, the defensive frailty under Vilanova has made Barcelona look mortal, despite its perfect record. The team had to come from behind against Osasuna, Spartak and Sevilla – the latter match particularly thrilling, a red card and two stoppage-time goals giving Barca a panting 3-2 win. Half of Barca's 24 goals this season have arrived in the last 15 minutes of games.

Times are tense; games are thrillers. Spectators will have a decidedly better viewing experience during the Clasico than Alexis Sanchez did this Tuesday.

Follow ZAC LEE RIGG on or shoot him an email

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