Andy Mitten

Is Gerard past his Pique?

Andy Mitten

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Gerard Pique leaves the pitch after being sent off against Sporting Gijon

Gerard Pique's greatest problem was that he didn't have one. Life has been kind to the Catalan. Unlike most footballers, he enjoyed a privileged upbringing in a wealthy Barcelona barrio. His neighbours were Barça stars, his granddad a vice-president of the club.

Pique became a rising star in Barça's junior sides alongside Cesc Fabregas and Lionel Messi. A good looking, confident lad, he lived life to the full, even when he moved to Manchester at 16.

Other youngsters might have struggled with the move. Jordi Cruyff, the previous player to have left Barça for United, hated Manchester, but Pique was different. Team-mates in United's reserves still maintain that they've never met anyone with such enthusiasm for life. Pique was up for anything, whether it was ten-pin bowling after training or playing poker. He always said yes.

I knew him myself and liked him. He was from Barcelona and in Manchester, I was from Manchester and spending most of my time in Barcelona.

Ultimately, Pique felt he was ready for first team football at Old Trafford, but couldn't break the Rio Ferdinand/Nemanja Vidic partnership and left in 2008. Sir Alex Ferguson was sad to see him go, but understood his reasons, the pull of his hometown club Barça.

Within a year, Pique played in the team which beat United in the final of the Champions League in Rome. United's coaches had considered him Barça's weak point against Cristiano Ronaldo's pace, something Pique made an mockery of as he established an enduring reputation as a big-game player.

Within two years of leaving Old Trafford he was a World Cup winner with Spain. He was 23 and had helped garner football's biggest trophies for club and country.

Pique's star continued to rise in Barcelona and he was hugely popular in the dressing room, a joker who brought the best out of other players. Carles Puyol went from living a monk-like existence to dating top models. His game wasn't affected.

Pique became more and more famous and continued living life to the full in Barcelona, the social butterfly who barely drank alcohol, didn't touch drugs but attracted women like moths to a flame. I'd see him about, outside his favourite Frankfurter bar or in a petrol station at 2am. He was always up for an interview and I could call direct. Still can, but before he's allowed to speak he needs permission from advisors and marketers, brand managers and agents. And then some. Maybe it's understandable for he's become very, very famous.

His relationship with Shakira has added to that fame. As I left Camp Nou a few weeks ago I spotted a little girl standing with what I thought were her mum and dad. It was Shakira with Pique's parents. The couple say they crave normality outside of work. Maybe they do, but something has changed with Pique and whatever it is, it's affecting his performances on the pitch.

A year ago he could have laid claim to being the best defender in the world. Barça fans even called him Piquébauer. Not now. His performances have dipped and he's started less than half of Barça's 25 league games this season.

It's hard to judge a man unless you've walked in his shoes, but he doesn't appear to be as motivated against lesser teams. Maybe that's a natural instinct when you know you're going to win, but Xavi and Iniesta, two players who should be role models for Pique, don't struggle.

Two weeks ago, I attended the launch of a new fashion range that Pique has put his name to. At times it's difficult to know what he doesn't sponsor, his face is used to promote so many brands. He answered questions with intelligence and charisma, with humour and canniness. That he answered as many questions about a possible marriage to Shakira as he did relating to football shows how he's perceived.

Pique has become a Beckham for the Spanish speaking market. Just as Sir Alex Ferguson wasn't comfortable with Beckham's off field distractions, so Pep Guardiola is equally ill at ease with Pique.

When it came to football, he claimed that all is well at Barça, that all is well between him and the manager. It's not. Guardiola has banned his players giving one on one interviews all season because he wants football to be the priority, but that doesn't extend to their own sponsors, of which Pique has many.

Pique is usually bright enough not to put his foot in it by what he says, but he's become distracted. He was dropped for the recent Bayer Leverkusen away game when he's usually one of the first names on the team sheet for European matches. The return leg is tonight. Guardiola claimed it was tactical, yet it came a day after a bus crashed into Pique's car. The defender claimed it was an accident, but Pique is a developing a reputation for not being as focussed on his football as he should be.

On Saturday against Sporting Gijon, he received a straight red for a tackle on Miguel de la Cuevas, a decision he disputed with embarrassing vigour and he had to be restrained by his own team mates. He's now been sent off four times since Guardiola took over, twice that of any other player.

Guardiola and Pique made no contact as he left the field. While Guardiola - whose side went from 1-1 with 10 men to win 3-1 - was measured in the after match press conference, in the neighbouring mixed zone Pique claimed that the referee's actions were pre-meditated as he has taken issue with the ref at half-time.

"At half-time I told the referee it was a penalty on Keita and he kept that [in his head], I have a feeling of premeditation," Pique told journalists. The referees' union was angered by this accusation and demanded further punishment.

"Pique's comments are unfortunate and very serious," referees' chief Victoriano Arminio said: "They make your blood boil, sportsmen must respect each other. His comments affect the state of refereeing and we will obviously report him."

Barça are angered and boycotted Tuesday's Spanish Football Federation meeting. They have closed ranks around Pique and will appeal against his red card too, but, in the privacy of their own confines, you can be sure that the conversations are very different when it comes to Pique. Barça need him at his best as the season enters its most crucial stage and so far he's been anything but.

Whether it's his off-field distractions which are making him lose form or not is unclear, but the very fact that fans, commentators and most importantly his manager think they are responsible means he it would be wise to scale back.

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