El Centrocampista

PIQUENBAUER’S GERMAN BREAK – Barça thump Lerverkusen but Pique’s absence looks suspicious

On any other night, Barcelona supporters would have been thrilled by their Champions League victory over Bayer Leverkusen yesterday.

Guardiola’s team have traditionally struggled to make an impact in the away leg of European ties, and a strong 3-1 victory is as good a result as they have ever claimed in those circumstances. The football isn’t what is worrying the fans though, and it seems that Tuesday’s success may have came at a cost, if we are to believe the murmers in some section of the Spanish press.

Living outside of Spain, we tend to rely exclusively on Sky Sports to bring us pre-match buildup when Spanish teams are playing, both domestically and in Europe. With La Liga this is less of a problem, Sky’s dedicated Spanish football team are second to none when it comes to both setting the scene before a game and providing quality analysis.

With the Champions League it’s more difficult however, and you’re unlikely to find more than overused cliches and the same old same old you’ve heard about Barcelona and Real Madrid a million times before. It doesn’t do much to set the senses alight with anticipation, frankly.

Fortunately, with the internet the options are better than before, and so anyone indulging in the pre-match ritual of listening to Spanish radio before Barcelona met Bayer Leverkusen will be aware of the one word on every commentator’s lips. Pique.

As the starting lineups trickled in around an hour or so before kick-off, the news emerged that Gerard Pique had not only been dropped from the starting lineup, but from the team altogether, his place instead taken by promising youngster Marc Bartra.

Pique’s performances of late have been well below standard, culminating in the worst of a bad bunch against Osasuna at the weekend. This would go a long way towards explaining his removal from Tuesday night’s team, except Pedro had been equally horrendous in Pamplona and still made it on to the bench. This curiosity, when combined with reports that Pique had been involved in a small car accident on Monday, sent conspiracy theorists wild.

“Punishment” was the phrase being banded around by the Spanish press. According to them, Guardiola was sending a message to Pique about his lack of focus in recent matches, and in doing so trying to prove that he wasn’t irreplaceable.

Barcelona can (and indeed did) win without Pique it seems, on this occasion courtesy of a few moments of genius from Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez. Pep Guardiola was typically tight lipped on the whole affair in his post-match press conference, and worked hard to try and diffuse the situation.

“Pique isn’t angry” the Barcelona Coach said. “He knows that we love him, Gerard is untouchable for us. Today I just wanted to play like this and preferred that Marc Bartra was on the bench.”

Guardiola’s line was that the match was an opportunity for someone like Bartra to gain some experience in the Champions League, if only from the bench. To those on the outside a vital knockout tie in Europe’s top competition hardly seems like the ideal time to blood a youngster. Unless, of course, your hand is forced. And so, only the most gullible of observers will believe that Pique’s absence was of a purely technical nature. As you may well imagine then, one section of the Madrid press wasn’t swallowing Guardiola’s answer.

A decision that smells of punishment” was Marca‘s headline. According to them, the car crash which caused Pique to arrive late at the Camp Nou on Monday was, combined with his lack of focus on the pitch, the real reason for his absence.

It must be said though, when Marca claimed that pictures surfacing on the internet of Pique celebrating his birthday with Shakira on a go kart had also played their part in the affair, it required a leap of faith beyond even them at the best of times.

AS, in keeping with their tone as of late, adopted a much more reasonable analysis of the situation. The other Madrid paper thought it was sufficient enough to simply quote Guardiola and let their readers do the rest.

“I only had 18 [players]. Next week we won’t have Mascherano available [courtesy of a post match red card in Pamplona, for those who missed it] and I had to acclimatise Barta, who we’ll need.”

The truth is unlikely to emerge, and in reality anyone covering the story is forced to read between the lines and make an educated guess, a consequence of Guardiola’s justified suspicion of the media. If Pep doesn’t want you to know, you probably won’t, and so we are left none the wiser as to the real situation, and that’s unlikely to change.

The result is that the story won’t go away, and if I was a betting man I’d say it’s a certainty that, should Marc Bartra not play at the weekend, Guardiola’s reasoning may yet come back to haunt him.

That being said, in the unlikely situation that Pique once again doesn’t make it into the team for Barcelona’s next tie against Valencia, the conspiracy theorists will be rightly vindicated. I’ll go out on a limb though and say that Gerard Pique will not only be selected, but start against Los Che.

Guardiola has a knack for silencing the media, and it’s the perfect response.



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