Gerard Pique is integral part of Barcelona's set-up and fans are fretting over his injury

Andy West 6/02/2018
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Gerard Pique loves to wind up Espanyol fans.

Gerard Pique is rarely out of the headlines, but few of those actually acknowledge what a good player is he or the importance of his role for Barcelona.

The central defender’s cheeky sense of humour and his determination to speak his mind lands him in all sorts of trouble.

Whether it’s winding up Real Madrid fans, being harangued by supporters of the Spanish national team or mocking his club side’s local rivals Espanyol, Pique always seems to be upsetting someone, somewhere.

And that’s a shame, because it can prevent us from appreciating his talents as an outstanding central defender who is just as comfortable with the ball at his feet as he is when attacking it in the air.

Now, though, Pique’s sporting ability may actually get some recognition following the news that he suffered a knee injury during Sunday’s feisty local derby draw with Espanyol.

Initial reports claimed he would be out of action for a month, meaning he would miss at least the first leg of the upcoming Champions League meeting with Chelsea.

And although concerns over the scale of the damage have now eased, the nervousness with which Barca fans are awaiting precise news over his condition shows just how integral he is to the team’s success.

Without Pique, manager Ernesto Valverde would be forced to partner the equally outstanding Samuel Umtiti with either Thomas Vermaelen, who is currently in the latter stages of recovery from his latest injury, or new signing Yerry Mina, who has not yet played for the club.

Neither of those options would fill fans with much confidence ahead of their team’s attempts to stop Eden Hazard and co, and Pique’s marshalling of his team’s defence – which he was even able to display in the flooded debris of Sunday’s local derby – will have a major role in Barca’s quest to secure their second league, cup and European treble in three years.

His importance is even greater now that long-serving and always reliable Javier Mascherano has now departed for China, and Barca really need Mina or Vermaelen to become a trusted first-choice deputy in the centre of defence, because at the moment neither of them are.

One thing that won’t change, we can be sure, is Pique’s habit of creating controversy – even when he doesn’t really deserve it.

Sunday’s game at Espanyol, for example, was followed by a passionate post-match dissection of Pique’s celebration of his equalising goal, with one TV show in Spain even debating whether or not he should have been sent off for his ‘be quiet’ gesture towards the home team’s fans.

As Pique noted after the game, considering the abuse he has ritually received from Espanyol fans over the last few years – much of which are obscene chants about his partner Shakira – putting his finger calmly to his lips is hardly the worst thing in the world for the defender to have done.

Indeed, his celebration was nothing compared to the actions – in the very same game – of Espanyol forward Sergio Garcia, who has been accused of (and has hardly rushed to deny) hurling racist abuse at Umtiti.

Garcia’s half-baked ‘apology’ on Instagram basically comes across as an admission that he did act in a racist manner towards Umtiti, who had to be forcibly restrained – by Pique, notably – from accosting his abuser on the pitch.

Yet it appears that no action will be taken against Garcia, because Spanish football authorities have a habit of sweeping such matters under the table. Unlike telling fans who are hurling obscene abuse to be quiet, which is apparently a major problem.

Priorities, it seems, need to be reconsidered.

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Sergio Garcia denies racially abusing Barcelona's Samuel Umtiti

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Garcia and Umtiti clashed at the final whistle on Sunday.

Espanyol striker Sergio Garcia has denied racially abusing Barcelona‘s Samuel Umtiti in the Catalan derby on Sunday, saying that he had cleared the incident up with Umtiti directly.

“In no way were my intentions racist,” Garcia posted on Instagram.

“You all know that my wife is of gypsy ethnicity and that I grew up in a neighbourhood with all the races in the world.

“My brother-in-law, with whom I have a strong friendship, is also African-American.

“Many things are said in the heat of a game which should stay on the pitch. Forca Espanyol!”

Umtiti was visibly outraged at the end of Sunday’s match, and fellow Barcelona defender Gerard Pique had to drag the Frenchman away from Garcia. The two then reportedly clashed again in the tunnel.

Spanish media alleged that Garcia called Umtiti a “black s***” during the on-pitch confrontation. Garcia reportedly later went to the Barcelona dressing room to apologise.

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Seven Deadly Stats as Pique gets another derby goal in Barca's 1-1 draw with Espanyol

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Espanyol are Gerard Pique's favourite opponents.

Barcelona came dangerously close to losing their unbeaten run in La Liga, on a wet, soggy afternoon at the home of local rivals Espanyol.

Blaugrana’s Catalonian rivals had ended Barcelona’s overall unbeaten start to the season with a win in the Copa del Rey last month, and they looked to be repeating the feat after taking a second-half lead and then keeping Barcelona at bay after that.

But Gerard Pique’s late header ensured that Barcelona’s bid for an unbeaten league season remains intact, after a 1-1 draw in one of the toughest fixtures Ernesto Valverde’s men have contested this season.

Here are Seven Deadly Stats from the game:

BARCELONA’S LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE WOODWORK

Barcelona would score their 60th goal of the season in La Liga on Sunday night, in just 22 games, a remarkable feat in itself. But with a little more luck, they could be averaging more than three goals a game. Philippe Coutinho‘s early strike nearly gave him a fantastic maiden goal for the club, but instead it became a sight that has been all too common this season for the Spanish giants: a shot hitting the woodwork.

Unbeaten start to the league season, runaway favourites for the title already, and yet they can genuinely claim they’ve been unlucky. How scary is that?

A LONG OVERDUE GOAL

That unbeaten run was looking precarious when Espanyol grew into the game in the second-half. The hosts hadn’t beaten Barcelona in the league in their last 17 attempts, but for a while it looked like that drought would end on Sunday after Gerard Moreno put Espanyol in front. 

In the end, the Periquitos had to settle for the end of a different drought, as Moreno brought up a career first. 

PIQUE LOVES THE DERBY

It was Pique to the rescue, as the defender’s late header from a Lionel Messi free-kick levelled the scores and earned Barca a creditable draw.

Pique and Espanyol have long had a prickly relationship, with the Barcelona defender having a history of winding up his local rivals and the Espanyol fans making their own feelings about the player perfectly clear. Again on Sunday, the 31-year-old was subjected to a torrent of abuse from the home fans, but he had the last laugh.

He does love scoring in the derby – Pique hasn’t scored more than three goals against any other opponent, but he’s prolific against Barcelona’s local rivals.

MESSI, MR. CONSISTENT

What’s left to be said about Messi? Even in a game like this, with the pitch practically water-logged and the rain making playing football, especially in the traditional Barcelona way, more or less impossible, the Argentinian was able to illuminate the game with his magic.

When he came on as a substitute, it instantly seemed like he was playing on a different pitch to everyone else. His dribbling and close control on a day where moving required swimming more than it did running was sublime.

And when given an opportunity to set up an equaliser, Messi didn’t disappoint. It was a perfectly-struck free-kick for Pique to attack and head home.

MR. UNSTOPPABLE

Imagine this: of Barcelona’s 60 league goals this season, Messi has been involved in half. There are still 16 games left to play. 

It’s only February, but he’s already established himself as the front-runner for the Ballon d’Or. Of course, this being a World Cup year, it’s possible that someone who shines in international football’s showpiece event, or in the Champions League, and does reasonably well the rest of the season – here’s looking at you, Neymar – could steal the crown from under Messi’s nose, but at the moment, the Barcelona man is well out in front. 

ESPANYOL EARN THEIR DRAW

Espanyol will feel they deserved a win, although a draw against this Barcelona side – even in conditions which level the playing field and perhaps even give you an advantage – is a creditable result. And this was no backs to the wall job, either. The hosts were good value for their point and negated Barcelona’s high-flying attack, keeping Coutinho and Luis Suarez at arm’s length throughout the contest.

They’ll be disappointed that it was a set-piece, of all things, that robbed them of a win, but when the set-piece taker is Lionel Messi, then such things can be forgiven. Even if that means having to swallow a Gerard Pique goal on your turf.

But the way they defended and barely offered Spain’s best attack a sniff at goal will be encouraging for a team that’s languishing in 15th place.

EVEN FOR BARCA, A NEW HIGH

This Barcelona team has taken on all comers with a resolve underpinning their stylish play, and it’s shown in games like this, games they could have lost and maybe even deserved to lose, but where they kept fighting and earned a positive result. 

Credit where it’s due: Valverde has restored the fight that seemed to be missing last season, and although the manager still has his share of critics among the Barcelona faithful, he’s showing in his first season in the Barca dugout that he can build a team of both substance and style. 

It’s a mark of how good this team is under Valverde that they’ve now broken a record set by the legendary Pep Guardiola Barcelona team. 

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