Gerard Pique fears Barcelona risk defeat in the Champions League at Lyon on Tuesday if they do not improve on the performance produced in their 1-0 victory over Real Valladolid.
By their standards, Barca laboured to a win secured by Lionel Messi’s 43rd-minute penalty, and while they sit seven points clear at the top of La Liga, their influential defender believes they need to significantly improve.
“We didn’t play well, it wasn’t a good game,” he told Movistar Partidazo. “The only good news is the victory, to get back to winning three points but we have to improve. For Tuesday, we have to be better.
“If not, it will go poorly. You have to find fluidity and play, that is what has brought us titles. If we don’t speed up the ball, we have possession, and we turn into a weak team. This is what we have to improve because our opponents know it.
“When you play three or four games in a row, your legs start to get heavy. Sometimes the manager (Ernesto Valverde) asks me and I am here to help the team. Tuesday is another battle.”
It was for a challenge on the 32-year-old Pique that Barca were awarded their match-winning penalty, which represented Messi’s 30th goal of the season but came before another he missed, and Pique added: “(Michel) knocked into my back, he unbalanced me and I fell.
“It’s a penalty. On television, they see things but the contact is enough for me to fall. It’s a penalty.”
The 55-year-old Valverde dismissed concerns about his team’s performance, and also around Messi’s missed penalty.
“If we are able to generate the chances that we have generated in the second part (of this match), things will go well,” he told the television channel. “In the important matches we have been reliable.
“I was sure (Messi) would score both. He is quite confident in everything and could make some more goals.”
Valladolid remain 15th and threatened by relegation, but despite them again dropping points, manager Sergio Gonzalez saw cause for encouragement from their performance.
“We came out stronger from this game,” said the 42-year-old, according to his club’s official website. “We have given a good impression and we can leave the Camp Nou with our heads held high.
“I’m very happy with my players. They have executed (our tactics) very well.”
Who is the best centre-back in each of Europe’s top five leagues?
Well, to answer, we’re going to break down two of the best from each of the divisions to gain measure of just who is the standout star.
In this edition, we look at La Liga and it’s Real Madrid’s all-action Sergio Ramos versus Atletico Madrid’s battling Diego Godin.
STATISTICS [2018/19 La Liga]
Minutes – 2026
Tackles – 36
Interceptions – 33
Clearances – 76
Pass success – 92.1%
Aerials won – 52
Minutes – 1428
Tackles – 32
Interceptions – 24
Clearances – 66
Pass success – 79.5%
Aerials won – 44
You wouldn’t peg Godin as someone who pumps iron on a daily basis but he boasts a naturally powerful and formidable frame while his strength is in his sheer commitment to the cause more than anything else.
Ramos on the other hand is a finer athletic specimen, blessed with the pace and agility that Godin lacks and modern day strikers would be proud of. The Spaniard is also a powerful player and while he’s a force in the air courtesy of his supreme leap, Godin is just as challenging owing to his towering physique.
While he’s not quick across the turf, Godin usually manages to keep up with forwards much faster than him by reading the danger and staying a step ahead. Is positioning in a variety of scenarios is impeccable and that’s also why he’s so good at defending balls into the area. The Uruguayan holds a distinct advantage over Ramos in this regard.
The Madrid skipper is notorious for vacating his post, getting caught out of position and even failing to pick up a forward runner at times. However, his pace and athleticism means he’s usually able to compensate, showing great ability to track back swiftly while his recovering tackles are second to none.
Both players are respected leaders for their sides. Captains of rival Madrid outfits, they epitomise some of the biggest values associated with their respective clubs. Godin is the old warhorse, the inspirational general leading his troops into battle. He encapsulates the work ethic and total commitment that’s been synonymous with Atletico during Diego Simeone’s reign.
Meanwhile, Ramos – with his flair, natural aggression and confidence – is the kind of player Real identify with. He’s less fundamentals, more flash but ultimately formidable. It also says a lot about Ramos’ character that he was the most popular figure in a dressing room that included Cristiano Ronaldo. Outside of Real, he’s often regarded as public enemy number one, a result of his passion for the team and desire to win sometimes taking an unappealing shape.
Godin has been a great servant to Atletico and Uruguay, leading both sides to unlikely glory. He’s still one of the best defenders in La Liga and has some time at the top level to go. However, you wouldn’t go as far as to say that he’s in his prime. The 32-year-old has seen many challenges in his time and come out fighting, with the battle scars to prove it. At this juncture though, he’s quietly in decline as he remains effective but gradually becomes less imposing.
Funnily enough, Ramos is also 32 and has never looked in better form. He’s become more defensively astute with experience while retaining his incredible physical attributes. His leadership has seen Madrid monopolise the Champions League trophy in recent years and with Ronaldo’s departure last summer, he’s enjoyed stepping into the spotlight, even taking over penalties.
At present, Ramos appears to be in his element while Godin’s powers are slightly on the wane.
Barcelona will attempt to maintain their six-point lead at the top of La Liga by overcoming lowly Real Valladolid at the Camp Nou on Saturday night.
Although the phrase is often over-used, this is undoubtedly a must-win game for Barca as they look to flex their muscles ahead of a crucial phase of games.
Let’s take a look forward to the game with three key talking points…
Valladolid there for the taking?
After drawing their last three games, and heading into a daunting run of four consecutive away games against Sevilla (league), Lyon (Champions League), Real Madrid (Copa del Rey) and Real Madrid again (league), there is absolutely no doubt that only one outcome will be satisfactory for Barcelona on Saturday night: a resounding victory.
A disappointing run of form has cast fresh doubt over the current leaders’ credentials to claim major honours, and the next few weeks could prove crucial. But Ernesto Valverde’s men can take heart from how they fared during their last similarly challenging spell: after going three games without a win at the end of September, they bounced back with an outstanding run of form which delivered league wins over Madrid and Sevilla along with Champions League triumphs against Tottenham and Inter Milan. A similarly strong reaction is required again now.
Visiting Valladolid are not expected to present any major problems, with the relegation-threatened outfit collecting just two points and scoring only two goals in their last four league away games. They should be there for the taking, and anything less than a morale-boosting big win – especially after the luxury of a rare midweek off – would threaten Barca’s morale ahead of a hugely demanding run of games.
Will Valverde celebrate new deal in style?
The game comes a day after Barca confirmed that manager Ernesto Valverde has agreed a one-year contract extension, a piece of news which was far from universally celebrated by a set of fans who are divided over the ex-Athletic Bilbao coach’s capabilities.
It should be noted, however, that the majority of Valverde’s critics are far-flung keyboard warriors who vent their fury on social media, while the general opinion among match-going fans is far more positive and Valverde is assured a warm welcome at the Camp Nou on Saturday evening.
However, the next few weeks will present a major test to the experienced coach, especially with his team returning to the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time since the debacle of their shock exit against Roma in last season’s quarter-finals.
Valverde appears to have the full support of his playing squad, and the favourable opinions of key dressing room figures such as Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez was undoubtedly a factor in the club’s decision to extend his contract. And there would be no better way for Valverde to answer his critics by overseeing a fluid and flowing performance to deliver a comprehensive win in front of his home fans.
Dembele and Alena, or Coutinho and Vidal?
Last weekend’s goalless draw at Athletic Bilbao featured a pair of substitutions which Valverde must be seriously considering repeating from the start this weekend: Arturo Vidal and Philippe Coutinho were taken off, with Carles Alena and Ousmane Dembele.
Both choices represent a significant contrast in style, starting in midfield where Alena’s technical skills are a better fit for the team’s overall approach whereas Vidal offers a greater and oft-needed dose of physicality. The situation is further muddied by the option for Valverde to start with neither Vidal nor Alena, and instead plump for versatile Sergi Roberto.
On the left flank, Coutinho is theoretically a safer bet, capable of keeping the ball with conservative passing, whereas Dembele is a high-risk, high-reward performer who regularly concedes possession cheaply but also poses a much greater threat than the Brazilian.
On the evidence of the current campaign, Dembele will surely feature in the team’s strongest starting eleven ahead of the consistently underwhelming Coutinho, and Valverde must be keen to start Dembele for the first time in nearly a month following injury rather than plunging him straight into the side for Tuesday’s trip to Lyon. With that in mind, Dembele being restricted to the bench this weekend would be a big surprise – and don’t be shocked if Valverde lines up with a 4-4-2 featuring both Coutinho and Dembele.