Piqué y Messi celebran el gol ante la Real Sociedad

The importance of Pique to Barcelona's title hopes

OPINION

@samuelmarsden

The elephant in the room at Barcelona brings shivers to supporters when brought up: what happens after Lionel Messi? But Messi is not the only generational player they will have to think beyond in the coming years. Another is Gerard Pique. 

Pique's contribution to Barca's success since he rejoined from Manchester United in 2008 has been huge. And his importance to the team, as has once again been magnified in the last few weeks, remains equally as big. 

The defender often spends the first half the season in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. In February, he turned 33 and for the last few years there have been questions about whether he is physically up to the task. This season, with his focus drifting when organising the Davis Cup, his commitment was also up for the debate. 

A league game at Getafe, a club handily based in Madrid, where the Davis Cup took place, allowed him to mix football and business in November. It created a lot of discussion about whether Pique's heart is still in the game. 

It has since been revealed that one of the social media accounts ran by I3 Ventures -- a third-party company that until recently worked with Barca -- had heavily criticised Pique at the time. Barca have subsequently denied they were aware of posts made by I3 amid allegations they were behind campaigns to smear various people related to the club.

Ernesto Valverde, the coach at the time, even suggested he would have to think about whether Pique would start at Getafe following a week of toing and froing between Barcelona and Madrid to follow the Davis Cup. 

Valverde, though, could never have dropped Pique. He is far too important and the team is far too reliant on him. 

If that isn't always completely true in the early days of a season, when at times his performances have fluctuated, it is when the games that really matter arrive. 

Pique has a habit of turning up on the big occasions. He has excelled in recent weeks against Napoli, Real Madrid and Real Sociedad. Against Napoli he led the team from defence, completing 114 of 120 passes. Barca lacked creativity further forward. Against Madrid he dealt with almost everything chucked at him, making a game-high six clearances and three interceptions. He was extremely unfortunate to deflect home Vinicius' opener. Against La Real, he was also one of Barca's best performers. 

Off the pitch, his discourse has been very on-task, too. That isn't always the case. Before the Napoli game, he didn't take the chance to criticise the board or president Josep Maria Bartomeu for the relationship with I3 -- although he didn't miss the opportunity to point out that the players, through "sustained success," have prevented the club spiraling into total crisis mode in recent years. 

After the La Real game, he also played down the Eder Sarabia controversy. Quique Setien's No.2 had been called out for his touchline behaviour during the Clasico. Pique said it was normal and that the players were not annoyed. 

He will be a difficult man to replace when he's gone but he will be impossible to replace if they lose him to injury this season. He has managed to stay fit this season, fighting off some minor knocks, but is beginning to tire. Before one goal kick at the weekend, he told goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen to take his time and play it long. The aim was for Barca to waste some time and get their breath back. 

Pique's played 25 out of 27 league games this season. The two he's missed have been due to suspension. In the Champions League, he's played five out of seven. He missed one through suspension and was rested against Inter, with top spot in the group sewn up. 

Without him, Barca would go with two lefties -- Samuel Umtiti and Clement Lenglet -- while B team defender Ronald Araujo has emerged as the fourth choice centre-back following Jean-Clair Todibo's January move. But as good as those three may be, going without Pique is something the Blaugrana don't even want to consider. 

Fair play Pimi 

Garcia Pimienta deserves credit for the work he's doing with Barca's B team. They won 3-2 at the weekend to move within one point of top spot in Spain's third tier as they fight for promotion to the second division. The reason his work deserves so much recognition is because of the disruption he's had to deal with this season. He's constantly losing players to the first team -- and others to injury -- but keeps on finding solutions. On Sunday, against Llagostera, U19 midfielder Ilaix Moriba was the match-winner. 

Spain's women   

After beating Japan 3-1, Spain's women narrowly lost to the United States in the SheBelives Cup. Julie Ertz's 87th-minute goal was the difference between the two sides as Spain once again proved they are now among the best teams in the world. They finish with a game against England on Wednesday when they could make a case for being the best team in Europe right now with a big performance. They may want to consider renegotiating the agreement over workers' rights they've just struck... 

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