Atlético Madrid was supposed to be the short-handed side for today’s match at the Nou Camp, but 15 minutes into the Spanish leaders’ first Champions League quarterfinal leg in Barcelona, it’s La Liga’s defending champions that are hamstrung. In a game where the injured Diego Costa made Atlético’s XI, Barcelona’s Gerard Piqué, the team’s best defender, has been forced out of the game within the first half-hour, limping off the field with an apparent leg injury.
Challenging for an early header, Piqué was thrown off-balance and ended up landing awkwardly. After initially trying to continue, Piqué sat on the pitch near the Barcelona area, attempting to stop play. Barcelona head coach Gerardo Martino immediately called on 23-year-old Marc Bartra, who took Piqué’s place next to Javier Mascherano in the 12th minute.
Potentially, this is a huge loss for the three-time champions, particularly considering defense is the team’s greatest concern. Last year, after Carles Puyol’s injuries made it clear the captain would not be a reliable starter going forward, Barcelona’s defense was badly exposed over two legs by Bayern Munich, with Piqué himself left looking bad as he was often isolated in the Champions League semifinals.
Despite that performance, the quality the Spanish international brings to the Catalan side is undeniable, from his strong work on the ball to the experience he brings from being a part of three Champions League winners (one with Manchester United). Particularly on set pieces, Piqué will be desperately missed, with his size providing the only reasonable marker for Atlético’s Diego Costa.
With Pinto already struggling in goal in place of Víctor Valdés, Piqué’s loss looks like a particularly damaging one. Whether that damage extends beyond leg one will be a major storyline as this matchup evolves.