COMMENT: Following some disappointing displays in recent times, the centre-back now has to fight for his place for both club and country - starting against VillarrealBy Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Life looked perfect for Gerard Pique. The famous footballer with the pretty popstar wife, a new family and a stunning selection of trophies for Barcelona and Spain, the defender seemingly had it all. But on the pitch, things are a little more complicated than that these days.
Pique started for Spain in the 2010 World Cup alongside club colleague Carles Puyol in central defence and again at Euro 2012 with Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos, winning both competitions to add two top international prizes to the impressive collection of silverware racked up (mostly) during the Pep Guardiola era at Camp Nou.
However, Pique played a reduced role in Guardiola's final season at Barca as the Catalan coach grew frustrated at the defender's off-pitch priorities and even hired private detectives to track his movements.
The following season, Pique shook off an injury and was a fixture under Tito Vilanova, but irked his coach by calling for changes after Barca lost 7-0 on aggregate to Bayern Munich in the semi-finals of the Champions League. "Perhaps the player who spoke about changes didn't imagine that he could be one of them," Tito hit back.
Since 2011, Pique's fluctuating form and fitness have caused concern among fans of both Barca and Spain, and when La Roja lost 5-1 to Netherlands in the World Cup in Brazil, the Catalan was dropped by Vicente del Bosque for the side's second match against Chile.
Del Bosque also left the 27-year-old out of a new-look Spain squad on Friday, calling up Barca team-mate Marc Bartra instead. The Spain boss claimed Pique was still suffering with a hip problem. "We have spoken to Pique," he said. "He wants to keep playing for the national team, but at the moment he still has some discomfort."
Shakira sang that "hips don't lie", but the truth over Pique's injury isn't entirely clear because Barca boss Luis Enrique contradicted Del Bosque as he claimed on Saturday that the defender is in "perfect condition" ahead of Sunday's game at Villarreal. "He has had some problems with his hip since last season, but has completed all of the training sessions over the last two weeks," the 44-year-old explained.
Pique was suspended in the opening round of La Liga as Barca beat Elche 3-0 at Camp Nou, but was left on the bench by Luis Enrique in the Gamper Trophy game against Leon, playing the second half as he replaced Javier Mascherano at the interval.
That was interpreted by some as an early wake-up call from Luis Enrique (who has already told Pique he is not a guaranteed starter this term) following his poor World Cup and a pre-season in which he has trained with less intensity than some of his team-mates.
And unlike in previous seasons when Barca were desperately short in the centre-back position, the Catalan now finds himself competing for one of two spots with Mascherano - a player greatly admired by Luis Enrique - and Bartra as well as summer signings Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen, who is currently injured.
For Spain, meanwhile, he will be up against Athletic Club's Mikel San Jose, Bartra and, when he returns from his long spell on the sidelines next year, Bayern's Javier Martinez.
"It was a big disappointment to miss out on the major trophies last season," Pique said recently. "But we have all the ingredients to make this a great year. The hard work starts now."
It does - for both Barca and the player himself. Because for the first time in several years, Pique faces genuine competiton for both club and country. No longer guaranteed a starting spot with either side, the defender is now very much playing for his future all over again - starting at Villarreal on Sunday.