Barcelona v Chelsea: Pique called in to stop Drogba
They used to call him Piquenbauer, then they stopped calling. Gerard Pique comes back in from the cold tonight for the biggest game of Barcelona's season, and with the job of stopping Didier Drogba.
He has been the cornerstone of Barcelona's incredible success over the last three seasons, majestically striding out from the back, generating so much of their play while giving them height in the penalty area and leadership in the dressing room, but he was left out of the first leg at Stamford Bridge and then of the clasico on Saturday.
"Of course I would have liked to play against Chelsea and Real Madrid but it would be a mistake to think about those two games now, that will not take me anywhere," he said last night.
After playing a big part in the 13 trophies won under Pep Guardiola, he has started and finished just 12 of 34 league games and played only three full matches in the 11 Champions League games so far.
Controversy has surrounded both omissions. At Stamford Bridge, he never joined the pre-match warm-up with the other substitutes and on Saturday, news of him being dropped reached the press two hours before the game along with the entire first XI.
"I don't think anyone leaked the news," he said. "After we trained we were told the team and any family member or friend of a player could have let the news slip so it's easy for that to reach the press."
Asked if he believed that he had been left out just for football reasons – a reference to his off-field profile as pop star Shakira's boyfriend increasing as his on-field role has diminished – he added: "I hope it is but you would have to ask Guardiola."
"Gerard has a full life," said the Barcelona coach. "I am no one to tell a player what to do in his private life because he needs to have a private life. That's his character; I want him with his own personality"
What cannot be doubted is that Pique has been sorely missed.
One of the reasons given for leaving him out of the first leg was to give Barcelona greater pace in the centre of their defence. Guardiola was concerned about counter-attacks and admitted at the weekend that his opposite number, Roberto Di Matteo, had surprised him by swapping Ramires's wing to put him up against Dani Alves.
Alves was missing in action for Didier Drogba's goal and once Ramires had left Xavi in his tracks neither Javier Mascherano nor Carles Puyol was able to get across to block. So much for Pique's lack of pace being a hindrance to Barça keeping a clean sheet.
He will return tonight alongside Mascherano with Puyol moving to left-back, and he spoke last night of Barcelona feeling no fatigue ahead of their chance to make history and become the first team to retain the Champions League.
Lionel Messi will also have missed Pique. He has had to come deeper and deeper to look for the ball with no Pique to bring it out from the back. The defender denied the team suffered from what is commonly known in Barcelona as "Messidependence".
"It's true that Messi is very important for us and his goals have been vital but this is a team and others can also win games for us." Messi has drawn a blank in the last two matches and failed to get a single shot on target in the weekend's clasico.
He and his team-mates looked tired; as Guardiola commented recently: "If we reach the final this year then we will have played every game possible in three of the last four years."
Pique said: "Tiredness isn't on anyone's minds. How many chances have Barcelona had to reach a Champions League final? We have to give it all, we have to make it to Munich."
Guardiola has never lost three consecutive games and after the weekend defeat some talked, not of fatigue, but of the end of an era. Pique gave the idea short shrift.
"It is very easy to talk about it but we have won 13 trophies and when other teams have won that many in the same time then we can talk about the end of an era. Barcelona fans cannot doubt this team. People have written us off before – last season we were written off after losing the King's Cup and then we went on to win the Champions League."
Chelsea will hope to avoid the same backlash tonight. "Statistics are there to be broken," said Pique when reminded of Barcelona's terrible record against Chelsea – they are the only team Guardiola has never beaten in 52 opponents. "If we play as we played at Stamford Bridge then we have a great chance."
Halfway history lessons: Advantage Chelsea
History favours Roberto Di Matteo's side tonight – the last five teams to win the first leg of a Champions League semi-final have all gone on to reach the final. Barcelona have never overturned a semi-final deficit in the three previous times they have trailed – to Internazionale (2010), Real Madrid (2002), and Valencia (2000).
There have been nine 1-0 Champions League semi-final first-leg leads, and only twice have the winners failed to progress.
On only four occasions has the team that has won the first leg of a Champions League semi-final not advanced, as opposed to 19 times when a club has won they first leg and gone on to the final:
1st leg:Chelsea 1-0 Liverpool
2nd leg: Liverpool 1-0 Chelsea (Liverpool won 4-1 on pens)
Joe Cole, who would later play for Liverpool, put Chelsea ahead in the 29th minute at Stamford Bridge to give his side a narrow advantage. In the second leg at Anfield, Daniel Agger levelled before the tie went to extra-time and penalties, where Liverpool prevailed 4-1 with Dirk Kuyt scoring the crucial spot-kick for Liverpool.
1st leg: Man Utd 3-2 Milan
2nd leg: Milan 3-0 Man Utd (Milan won 5-3 on aggregate)
In the other semi-final in 2006-07 Manchester United failed to capitalise on their 3-2 first leg victory at Old Trafford, after Wayne Rooney's last-minute winner. United's hopes were extinguished in the second leg, however, as Milan cruised past them in convincing fashion at San Siro.
1st leg: R Madrid 2-1 Juventus
2nd leg: Juventus 3-1 R Madrid (Juve won 4-3 on aggregate)
At the Bernabeu, Brazilians Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos scored for Real Madrid, but David Trezeguet claimed a crucial away goal for Juventus just before half-time. The Italians then overturned the deficit in the second leg after surging to a 3-0 lead.
1st leg: Ajax 0-1 Panathinaikos
2nd leg: Panath'kos 0-3 Ajax (Ajax won 3-1 on aggregate)
Holders Ajax suffered a 1-0 first leg defeat at home to Panathinaikos with Polish striker Krzystof Warzycha giving the Greek side an unlikely win. Ajax recovered in the second leg with a 3-0 win, but lost in the final to Juventus.