By Rik Sharma
(Reuters) - - As Barcelona stumbled to a 2-1 defeat by Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday, many put their struggles down to the absence of Neymar. But the hole left at the back by the missing Samuel Umtiti was just as telling.
Brazilian forward Neymar, inspirational in Wednesday's stunning 6-1 Champions League win over Paris St Germain, was unavailable in Galicia with a thigh injury, leaving the team lacking inspiration in attack.
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In defense they were notably fragile without French center-back Umtiti, who has played a crucial part this season in his first campaign since joining from Olympique Lyonnais last summer for 25 million euros ($26.7 million). Barcelona have won every one of the 16 league games in which he has featured, while emerging triumphant in just two of 11 games without him.
His absence had a direct impact in the defeat by Depor, with both of the hosts’ goals coming from set pieces.
Javier Mascherano botched an attempted clearance that led to Joselu’s opener, while Umtiti’s replacement Jordi Alba was left rooted to the spot as Alex Bergantinos outjumped him to head the winning goal.
Playing center-back is a tricky assignment at Barcelona, as highlighted by the string of defenders - from Dmytro Chygrynskiy to Thomas Vermaelen - who have attempted to perform the role but failed to make a mark at Camp Nou.
Umtiti took to it like a fish to water, playing with supreme confidence for a 23-year-old, and relishing the attacking responsibilities as much as the defensive ones.
Strong in the air, he is also extremely comfortable on the ball and can take it past opponents to find the right angle for a pass to help build attacks from the back.
"To be honest I am surprised by Umtiti’s quick adaption," said coach Luis Enrique. "It’s a position where the club has always had handicaps."
Although both of them were excellent against PSG, Mascherano is the victim of Umtiti’s success, with a clamor growing for the Frenchman to be Gerard Pique’s partner while the Argentine gets benched.
It hasn’t been a flawless season for Umtiti, with poor performances against PSG in the 4-0 defeat in Paris and the 2-1 first leg defeat by Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey last 16.
But these missteps do little to mask the quality and calmness he has brought. He could be a rock in the defense for years to come.
($1 = 0.9369 euros)
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)