The last time Barcelona played in England, one year ago at Old Trafford, Gerard Pique was in the stands with the rest of the Manchester United reserves. Tomorrow night he will be marking Didier Drogba in the heart of Barça's defence, and he is convinced the education he received from Sir Alex Ferguson will help him come out on top.
"When I arrived in Manchester I had already learnt so much about the technical side of the game at Barcelona," he said. "But in England other aspects are more important such as dealing with the ball in the air and using your body strength. Perhaps these things are not so useful in the Spanish League but when you face a game like the one I am going to face on Wednesday that ability to deal with the aerial and physical battles is going to help the team enormously."
Ferguson allowed Pique to rejoin Barcelona in the summer for around £5m unconvinced that he was ever going to be good enough to break up the Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic central defensive partnership.
But in an extraordinary first season Pique has been a key member of Barcelona's charge towards the treble. Last Saturday in the 6-2 win over Real Madrid he was majestic again, controlling Madrid's forward line without conceding a single foul. He scored the sixth goal of the night and in the reams of praise since written by the Spanish and Catalan press, has been dubbed Piquenbauer – not bad for a Fergie reject.
"At the time we all agreed it was time for me to go," he said. "It was as much a decision of Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United as it was of Barcelona and myself. I wouldn't say that he [Ferguson] got it wrong, he was just doing what he thought was right at the time. And for me there are no regrets about my time at Manchester. It was there that they really turned me into a player."
Towering over a diminutive midfield, unimposing full-backs and a shaky goalkeeper, Pique is Barcelona's best chance of effectively clearing corners and crosses.
Even with him and fellow Spain international Carles Puyol in the side at the weekend, they were beaten by two headers, and after the game their manager, Pep Guardiola, admitted Barcelona simply did not have the resources to deal with Chelsea's aerial threat. Pique added: "The worrying thing was that we conceded two goals from crosses at the weekend. On Wednesday against Chelsea it will be really difficult to defend all their players on set pieces."
With Puyol suspended and Rafa Marquez out injured Pique will be the lynchpin at the heart of a makeshift back-four tomorrow night. Barcelona should be stronger in attack: Thierry Henry, who had treatment on a knee injury yesterday and missed training, is expected to be fit to start.
Guardiola has got all his decisions right this season but he could make his most important one yet when he decides on Pique's central defensive partner.
Martin Caceres could come in, or full-back Eric Abidal or holding midfielder Yaya Touré could switch positions. None of the options are ideal. Whoever is picked, Pique's name will be one of the first on the team-sheet and should Barcelona go through, and the other semi-final goes Manchester United's way, there will be one more chance to measure up to Ferdinand and Vidic in the final.Reuse content