Playing at his Pique

He has the talent, the looks,the superstar girlfriend and he’s played for both Man United and Barcelona. What’s not to like about the defender some believe is the world’s best, says Andy Mitten

YOU can’t avoid Gerard Pique. His model good looks mean he’s the face of several international fashion brands, plastered on bus shelters from Madrid to Manchester.

His relationship with the Colombian singer Shakira has made him the darling of Spain’s Prensa Rosa (Pink Press) and the pair are followed by paparazzi around Barcelona, a city which traditionally respected the privacy of its famous residents.

Pique does not have the typical rags-to-riches footballer story. Nor does the son of a lawyer and a hospital director, the grandson of a former Barca vice-president, hide away in ivory towers. He’s seen in the petrol station at 2am and in the rough-and-ready frankfurter bars of the wealthy Predralbes district, close to where he grew up.

Home is a modern, glass-front palace overlooking the Mediterranean to the north of Barcelona, but he keeps a flat in the centre of the city close to the clubs and bars. He’s not a big drinker, but he’s a huge socialiser, attracting the opposite sex like a modern-day George Best.

The Catalan plays in the world’s best team and is considered the world’s best defender too. At just 24, he has the medals to back it up, yet his chances of a second Champions League success in two years could be thwarted by his former United team mates. And one in particular.

“I have never seen a player as powerful as Wayne Rooney,” says Pique. “The way he goes past people, the intensity of his play, the runs he makes from the first minute to the last and the shot that he has. World class.” Piqué has given much thought to his old dressing room mate this week and to the role he will play. “Wayne will be more dangerous as a striker,” he says. “He is always a striker at heart. We will have to be really concentrated not to give him space, not to give him time, not to score goals.”

The pair have kept in touch since the Catalan departed Carrington in 2008.

“We were close at United. One day, I remember the boss made us both change our boots in training, as he didn’t like us wearing yellow ones. We have a good relationship, but during the game there are no friends,” he says.

Pique retains his respect for his former manager.

“Alex is always the boss, and always will be. He’s absolutely incredible. He’s won loads of titles and has made Manchester United the best team in England,” he says.

United snared Pique, who had excelled at youth level, as a 16-year-old, from Barca in 2004. He was a patient learner in Manchester, but his first-team opportunities were limited to 14 starts and nine substitute appearances.

“I still remember the day I told him I wanted to leave,” says Pique. “I went into his office and just told him straightaway. I told him I appreciated him a lot, had had three great years in Manchester and enjoyed playing a lot, but that I wanted to leave to go home. Barcelona is my home and I was a fan of them since I was a child. He understood completely and our relationship is still good.”

Ferguson speaks glowingly of the player he allowed to leave United in a £4m (€4.6m) transfer just a year after the Old Trafford club turned down a €10m bid from Real Zaragoza, but then senior coaches and scouts considered Pique United’s fourth or fifth choice centre-half behind Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Wes Brown and Johnny Evans.

“I didn’t play all the time at United, that was the problem. Rio and Vidic played every week, which I could understand because they were the best pairing in the world. It was almost impossible for me to break into the team. Ironically, when I left they started to get injured. As soon as I started playing regularly at Barça, fans saw me at my best,” he says.

Manchester is not a city he misses. “I don’t miss the place or the food or the weather,” he says. “I’m lucky to live in Barcelona. I’m very happy here. But I do miss the dressing room and the great atmosphere in it. I miss the friends I played with.

“The dressing room humour here is different from that in England. There’s nobody setting fire to your shoes or cutting your trousers in half. I couldn’t understand it when I first moved to United, I didn’t know what to expect after training. There wasn’t a day when they didn’t cross the line. Wazza (Rooney), Rio and Evra were the worst.”

Pique’s return to Catalonia coincided with Guardiola’s appointment as coach. He found that he was more suited to Barça’s style than ever and thrived at the responsibility of bringing the ball out of defence and initiating attacks.

“Guardiola asked us to do that, to start the attack,” he says. “We have to bring the ball out and look for the forwards. It’s difficult, because I was used to defending, but I soon became used to this way of playing.”

Barça’s machine may look slick, but Pique says “we panic all the time. Even if we’re controlling the game with 75% possession of the ball, you have to be really concentrated as teams will try and counter-attack, and we have to run back to stop them. We’re not panicking exactly, but we have to be vigilant.”

Pique cites his close friend Carles Puyol as a major influence. “He’s a really good professional and keeps us on our toes. Even if we’re winning 5-0, he keeps us all concentrating until the game ends. When you have a player like Puyol in the team, who’s been here for 12 or 13 years he’s a great example,” he says.

Pique has briefed his team mates about United. And especially about Rooney.


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