x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Gerard Pique expects hard duel with Didier Drogba

Barcelona defender ready for must-win Champions League second-leg semi-final with Chelsea tonight.

Gerard Pique, the Spanish defender, has laughed off suggestions that Barcelona are a team in decline. Mike Hewitt / Getty Images
Gerard Pique, the Spanish defender, has laughed off suggestions that Barcelona are a team in decline. Mike Hewitt / Getty Images

BARCELONA // Gerard Pique received a text message yesterday from Rio Ferdinand, his former Manchester United teammate, asking to speak to him.

"I don't know whether he wanted to talk about how I should mark Didier Drogba," said Pique, who is expected to be recalled to Barcelona's starting XI for their Champions League semi-final second leg against Chelsea tonight.

Barca need to do what they have failed to do in their six previous encounters against Chelsea: win.

Ferdinand is well placed to offer advice on how to mark Drogba, but the Catalan is not naive about nuances of marking the Ivorian who troubled Barca's diminutive central defenders at Stamford Bridge last week.

"I've played against him many times and he's one of the best forwards I've seen," said Pique. "He's very complete and has played at the top level for a long time. That's hard to do. It's going to be a very hard duel."

While Drogba was effective and scored the only goal of the tie so far, he was heavily criticised for holding up play and going to ground too readily, by Ferdinand's teammate Wayne Rooney among others.

"I trust players that every time they go down, something hurts," Pique said. "I don't think he should be criticised. I believe in honesty."

Pique's height means he is expected to start alongside Javier Mascherano, with Carles Puyol switched to left-back. He doesn't take the start for granted.

Pique was Pep Guardiola's first signing when he was appointed manager in 2008 and the pair have been part of a side which have won 13 of the 16 competitions they have entered.

Pique has been a near ever present until recently when he was dropped, officially because of a calf injury but unofficially because relations between player and coach have cooled because of Pique's indulgent lifestyle.

"A new situation for me – I'm used to playing," Pique said. "It's a technical decision of the manager and I have to respect that."

He played down rumours of a fallout with his boss.

"My relationship with him is very good, better than you think," he told some of the 600 unconvinced journalists in Barcelona to cover the game. "Really. People might doubt it but we speak much more than people imagine. He's [Guardiola] always tough on me, he has been since the first year, but I like that."

Guardiola gave little away about his team. He was angered his starting XI was leaked by the Madrid-supporting Radio Marca before Saturday's clasico defeat, but Pique is almost certain to start. He also dismisses talk that Barcelona are a team in decline.

"I believe the team which has won 13 trophies in the last three years deserves more credit than for people to say we're finished after losing two games," Pique said.

"Sometimes Barcelona fans are a little pessimistic, but our fans believe in us. They understand that we can lose a match. We play good teams, sometimes we have to lose."

Pique knows it will be tough against a "competitive, experienced" Chelsea team, but is calm and focused.

"We have to be ourselves, control the game and I'm sure we'll have chances. If we have 70 per cent of possession like we usually do we have opportunities to score."

Anything less and Barca's season which has promised so much will be over.

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