Pep Guardiola's players went through a final Camp Nou training session behind closed doors yesterday.
Pique has become key for Guardiola
BARCELONA // Pep Guardiola's players went through a final Camp Nou training session behind closed doors yesterday. Ahead of today's flight to Rome for the Champions League Final against Manchester United, Andres Iniesta and Thierry Henry looked close to full fitness, performing well and joking with the player charged with testing them, defender Gerard Pique.
Pique is perceived as a weak link by some inside Old Trafford who remain convinced that Cristiano Ronaldo will get the better of his former teammate. They feel Pique, 22, can be caught on the turn by the faster Ronaldo. In Catalonia, however, they consider Pique's four years at United invaluable in learning about the nuances of United's attackers. Sir Alex Ferguson always speaks glowingly of the player he allowed to leave for Barca in a £4million (Dh23.4m) transfer last summer, but senior coaches considered Pique United's fourth or fifth choice centre-half behind Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Wes Brown and Jonny Evans.
United snared Pique, who had excelled at youth level, as a 16-year-old from Barca in 2004. He was a patient learner, but his first team opportunities were limited to 14 starts and nine substitute appearances. To gain experience, Pique was loaned to Zaragoza in 2006, where he did so well that they bid £10m to make the deal permanent. United rejected the offer because they felt he had a future at Old Trafford, but starts remained limited.
Ironically, one came in the venue for tomorrow's final against Roma in December 2007, with Pique scoring United's goal in a 1-1 draw. United still wanted to keep him as a reserve centre-half. They admired his technical excellence, his pace and his charges up the field, but an offer to play for Barca - his hometown club whom he has supported all his life - was never going to be turned down. "We were disappointed to lose him, but we understood at the time that his family desire was to go back to Barcelona," says Ferguson. "He looked at Ferdinand and Vidic and wanted to be in the first team immediately."
Pique could have found himself in a similar position at Camp Nou, but defensive injuries have made him indispensable to coach Guardiola and he's improved immeasurably in Spain. "He has fantastic qualities but most importantly, he has a good self-determination," added Ferguson. "He is a winner. I always thought he would do well." Pique, naturally, is delighted with his progress and is expecting to play in Rome. Much will depend on his performance.