Better than Puyol? Pique has cemented his legacy as an all-time great


There was a time when Gerard Pique couldn't imagine a Barcelona team without Carles Puyol.

"I remember the day he came back [after injury problems in 2010-11]," the former Manchester United defender reminisced. "In the middle of the game I said: ‘Puyi, I’ve missed you so much.’

"He told me to shut the hell up and concentrate! He never stops.

"One time, the game was stopped, someone was on the stretcher, and he was shouting at me.

"I said to him: ‘Calm down, it’s 4-0 and there are three minutes left.’

"He said: ‘So what? Focus! I know you!'"

How times change.

Whereas once it was Puyol holding the Barca defence together, now it is Pique, the man who once admitted that he struggled to truly focus on matches until the second half of the season.

When he was rested for last month's trip to Villarreal – after playing every single minute of the Liga campaign up until that point – Barca went to pieces, conceding four times in his absence.

If it hadn't been for Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi, they would have been beaten at El Madrigal. Instead, they escaped with a 4-4 draw that maintained their momentum on their way to another Liga title.

Of course, Barca's star forwards have unsurprisingly dominated the headlines for the majority of the season but Pique has played just as pivotal a role in Barca's treble bid.

And this, after a dismal start to the season.

When Pique announced his retirement from Spain duty after last summer's World Cup, he explained that he needed to rest.

He certainly looked to be suffering from fatigue during the early part of the 2018-19 campaign, proving sloppy in possession and slow off the mark.

Indeed, he had made three mistakes directly leading to goals by the start of October alone and given Samuel Umtiti's ongoing injury problems, there were serious and legitimate concerns over the state of Barca's backline.

However, Pique slowly but surely began to reap the rewards of the greater recovery time offered by international breaks and quickly got back to his very best, forming an excellent central defensive pairing with summer signing Clement Lenglet.

Pique's performances in two crucial Clasicos at the Santiago Bernabeu in the space of four days earlier this year were among the finest of his career.

Exuding control, class and composure, Pique was immense as Barca recorded 3-0 and 1-0 victories in Real Madrid's own backyard to end the Blancos' interest in the Copa del Rey and the Liga title race, respectively.

“On the pitch Pique deactivates danger calmly, but with the authority of a police commissioner,” Jorge Valdano gushed in his column for El Pais.

"He constructs moves with infinite class, in an almost provocative way.

"I have the impression that Pique is in love with himself, and, given what we saw in the Clasicos, he has every right to be."

Of course, the Catalan offered another masterclass in last week's Champions League semi-final first leg at Camp Nou against Liverpool.

Reds colossus Virgil van Dijk went into the game lauded as the world's best centre-half yet Pique was the best defender on the pitch.

While the Dutchman was being blamed for Barca's first two goals in a thrilling 3-0 win, Pique was being lauded for showcasing the kind of focus, anticipation and immaculate positional play that he was once accused of lacking.

"He's always been very intelligent, but you notice it more now," Puyol opined.

"The same with his leadership, which he's always had but now he's in complete control on the pitch, especially at the back. That's a plus.

"His positioning has improved as well. He hardly ever loses his position and he knows how to read the game and to anticipate what's going to happen.

"He never loses his head. He seems more responsible, too, something which comes with time and age."

Which is why Puyol now believes that, at 32, Pique has surpassed him.

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“Yes, he's the best central defender in the world," the Barca icon enthused.

“We're different but he is key to Barcelona in everything he contributes, and in his leadership."

So much so, in fact, that it's now hard to imagine Barca without him.