As expected, Barcelona booked their place in Sunday's FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2011 final, now set to face Brazil's Santos after a straightforward 4-0 win over Qatari side Al-Sadd. The game provided a rather nasty shock, however, with Barca's Spanish international forward David Villa suffering a potentially season ending injury just before half-time.
Villa landed awkwardly after shooting on the Al-Sadd goal and was taken immediately to a Yokohama hospital where it was confirmed he had suffered a fractured tibia.
"David has fractured his leg and will return to Barcelona for an operation as soon as possible," Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola said after the game. "All the players are very worried about him. Our thoughts are with him and we will have to win the Club World Cup without him."
Reports in Spain suggest that Villa already had a problem with his tibia and now faces an extended spell on the sidelines. Guardiola said it was too early yet to know when Villa would be back in a Barca shirt, but the outlook was not promising.
"He will be out for a long time," said the Catalan coach. "We hope he will return as soon as possible, but it takes a long time to return after a break like this. We are all very sad for him. It is a massive blow for the team."
Villa's absence will surely be felt at Barcelona. After arriving for €40 million just before the 2010 World Cup, he quickly slotting in on the left-side of Barca's front three. He got 34 goals in 63 games - including a brace in the 5-0 home victory over Real Madrid in November and the third in Barça's 3-1 win over Manchester United in May's Champions League final.
This season had already been more challenging for the former Sporting Gijón and Valencia man, though. The arrival of Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fábregas, the emergence of youngster Isaac Cuenca and Guardiola's evolving tactics have increased the competition for places in the side. El Guaje (the kid) has often been the man to miss out. Guardiola chose to start Alexis for last weekend's Clásico at Real Madrid, and the Chilean responded with a superb performance and his side's first goal in a comeback 3-1 win.
On Wednesday the coach had to dismiss as "lies" a story in Madrid's Marca newspaper that Villa could be sold, even as soon as next month.
The injury will complicate Barcelona's quest to retain their Primera División and Champions League titles, but Guardiola has many options to cover the loss.
Spanish national team boss Vicente del Bosque might be more troubled by today's news. Thirty-year-old Villa is Spain's all-time top scorer with 50 goals in 81 appearances, and without his five goals in South Africa, la selección would not have won last year's World Cup. He has remained a key figure, scoring seven times in Spain's eight UEFA EURO 2012 qualifiers, as one of only two players to appear in each game. With former strike-partner Fernando Torres having perhaps permanently mislaid his mojo, Spain now seem likely to face Italy on June 10th in Gdansk without an established international class center-forward.
"The news is very bad, dreadful, first of all for him because he is the one injured, but also from the EURO 2012 perspective," Del Bosque told Europa Press today. "Some players heal more quickly than others and each injury is different. There are still six months to go. We must wait and see what the doctors say before we talk ourselves."
The canny Spanish coach will know he must make contingency plans just in case and that his potential replacements are not nearly as promising as Guardiola's. Sevilla's Álvaro Negredo has five goals in seven senior caps but is still very raw. Athletic Bilbao targetman Fernando Llorente is more useful coming off the bench in specific games. Villa's Barca colleague Pedro Rodríguez is more effective out wide than up front. The clamor to finally call up Valencia's uncapped but in-form Roberto Soldado will surely increase, but Del Bosque - who coached Soldado as a youngster at Real Madrid - seems unconvinced. Torres may recover his old form at Chelsea, but there's little sign of that happening yet.
A more attractive option for Del Bosque may be to shift David Silva forward into a role similar to Lionel Messi's at Barcelona. Fábregas can also play that 'false-nine' position, but Silva is the closest to a Messi Spain have. The Manchester City man also links well with Xavi Hernández and Andres Iniesta and has the required imagination, technique and footwork in tight spaces, although he lacks the Argentine's turn of pace. Del Bosque used this formation in the home qualifier against Scotland and Silva sparkled with two goals in a 3-1 win. He also tried something similar, with less successful results, during November's 0-0 friendly draw against England.
The smart money might be on Spain's pre-tournament friendlies being used to continue the experiment. Villa's unfortunate injury may have opened the door for his former Valencia club-mate to take center stage next summer.