By Charlie Scott
How Barcelona must envy Real Madrid. In Raphael Varane, los Merengues have one of the world's outstanding young defenders - and he cost just €10 million. Such is the Frenchman's talent, he is being spoken of in the same breath as one of Madrid's favourite sons, Fernando Hierro, and he has already scored twice against Barca.
Meanwhile, over at Camp Nou, the career of one of their favourite sons is winding to a close, and they have no player capable of adequately replacing him.
Though Carles Puyol continues to start games for the Blaugrana, those in charge of player recruitment must surely be scouring the globe for a youthful replacement for the 34-year-old. The captain's performances in the team's two recent high-profile matches - against AC Milan and Real Madrid - have contributed to disastrous results.
|PUYOL ON THE PLUMMET?|
| AC MILAN-BARCELONA
|Unconvincing during the opening minutes as he was beaten in a pair of challenges, and that trend manifested itself throughout the game as the pace of Milan on the break caught him out for the second goal.|
| BARCELONA-REAL MADRID
|The veteran centre-back was booked for protesting in the 40th minute after a series of fouls from players on his team before being beaten easily by Di Maria in the build-up to Madrid's second goal. His age and lack of mobility caught up with him against los Blancos' vibrant attack.|
Angel Di Maria breezed past him on the way to setting up Madrid's second goal in the recent 3-1 Copa del Rey defeat, while he also looked very uncomfortable against the pace and purpose of Stephan El Shaarawy when Milan emerged surprise 2-0 victors at San Siro on February 20.
It may be a lack of fitness that is affecting Puyol, but, with his 35th birthday on the horizon, Barcelona must start effectively planning for life without him.
Last summer they sanctioned the €25m purchase of Alex Song from Arsenal, on the premise that he would be a versatile member of the squad, able to fill in at centre-back when needed, despite ostensibly being a midfielder.
And it is being kind to say that that deal hasn't quite worked out for them. The Cameroon international has looked out of his depth, particularly when asked to help out in defence.
Javier Mascherano has managed to successfully reinvent himself as a centre-back, but Song certainly has not. To think that Varane cost just over a third of what Barca paid for Song must be painful for the Catalan club's board.
As Arsenal rubbed their hands together in glee when Song's transfer fee landed in the club accounts, their North London rivals Tottenham were busy acquiring one of Europe's most complete centre-halves, Jan Vertonghen.
Instead of paying an inflated fee for a risky project in the form of Song, Barcelona could have purchased Vertonghen for €13m.
They missed that opportunity, and with quality centre-backs thin on the ground, they could struggle in the coming transfer window when they invariably will have to buy a Puyol replacement.
Thiago Silva signed a lucrative deal with Paris Saint-Germain in July, while Borussia Dortmund and Juventus would be loathe to sell Mats Hummels or Leonardo Bonucci respectively.
Jordi Roura's side may have the Liga title seemingly sewn up, but their two-legged defeat to Madrid in the Copa del Rey will have cut deep, while they face a huge task in overturning a two-goal deficit when they host Milan at Camp Nou for the return leg of their Champions League tie on March 12.
Puyol has made over 500 appearances for Barcelona and won 100 international caps for Spain, but his playing career is edging to completion. And, more importantly, the Catalan club simply cannot afford to misdirect their transfer budget again if they wish to compete with Madrid.