Gerard Pique’s focus on Davis Cup is symptomatic of Barcelona’s drifting concentration in La Liga title race

The Spanish defender helped organised the revamped tennis tournament, which has coincided in a loss of form

Dermot Corrigan
Monday 25 November 2019 12:46
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Behind the scenes: FC Barcelona's third kit launch

The weekend trip to Madrid brought a double victory for Barcelona defender Gerard Pique, with his club remaining co-leaders in La Liga and Spain winning his revamped Davis Cup, but with concerns over the long term prospects of both his professional interests.

Much of the debate ahead of Barcelona’s visit to struggling Leganes on Saturday lunchtime was over whether Pique would start the game, after spending much of last week attending the tennis tournament which his company Kosmos organised.

Injuries and suspensions limited Barca coach Ernesto Valverde’s options, and the experienced centre-half was in the XI for the game at Butarque, less than 10 kilometres from the Caja Magica arena where he had attended Rafa Nadal’s match the previous night.

The concerns over Pique’s priorities rose inside 90 seconds when his dodgy clearance gifted Leganes’ Martin Braithwaite a shooting chance, and seemed confirmed when Youssef En-Nesyri got away from his marking and smashed a rising shot to the far top corner after just 12 minutes. Soon afterwards another attempted pass out of defence was charged down, and Oscar Rodriguez might have made it 2-0.

The tidy Estadio Municipal de Butarque was rocking as fans of La Liga’s bottom team saw their team on the way to an unlikely three points. Although Barca had most of the ball for the remainder of the half, they did very little with it. Talisman Lionel Messi was very deep and constantly surrounded by four opponents, while Antoine Griezmann especially struggled to get involved. The only clear chance to equalise came when the visitors’ brightest player Ousmane Dembele crossed for a Luis Suarez header well saved by goalkeeper Ivan Cuellar.

Despite their fans optimism, Leganes themselves offered very little either. Under new coach Javier Aguirre the approach was very, very basic – sitting deep, wasting time whenever possible and lumping it long from Cuellar to En Nesyri as their only way to move up the pitch.

Barca were barely more constructive in possession, not helped by strong winds and a bumpy pitch. So Valverde’s team focused on the basics themselves too after the break. Pique headed against a post from Messi’s corner, before the Argentine’s next set-piece delivery was nodded in by Luis Suarez, with a suspicion of shenanigans as the ball came in.

The quality of game, but Barca’s better nous, was summed up by substitute Arturo Vidal poking home a late winner, after another Messi corner was not cleared properly. The standout moment of the closing stages was Barca’s fit again centre-half Samuel Umtiti clearing the Butarque stands with a booming clearance aimed for Row Z.

At the post game news conference Valverde used the phrase “not a brilliant game” in four of seven answers, but praised his team for finding a way to win in very difficult circumstances.

Pique applauds the Barcelona fans

“We have to be happy,” he said. “It was clearly not a brilliant game. It was difficult to play, we went behind early and they sat back and defended. We found it difficult – the wind was blowing, the pitch was awful, there was not much space to play inside. These are not excuses. We found a way to win.”

In his post-game interview Pique also brushed aside both concerns over his own time-management and Barca’s lack of fluidity. “It’s all part of the media circus, but I just do my job,” he said. “I come here, play football, then I do other things. I wanted to organise the Davis Cup, and it has gone well for me. I know I can do both as they are not incompatible. It is always difficult to play away from home. But we will take being leaders in LaLiga and in the Champions League. And we will pick up confidence and play better.”

Pique’s unique double-jobbing is probably not Barca’s main problem. But it is symptomatic of the team’s concentration drifting regularly this season, especially on the road, where they’ve already lost at Athletic Bilbao, Granada and Levante, and drawn at Osasuna.

Pique spent a lot of last week watching the Davis Cup that he has helped to revamp

Even more concerning for purist blaugrana fans and pundits is the team having lost their trademark midfield control. Valverde changed shape on Saturday, starting all of Messi, Dembele, Griezmann and Suarez together for the first time, in a rough 4-2-4 formation. The experiment clearly did not work, with Barca creating very little in open play, and both their goals coming from set-pieces.

Griezmann and Frenkie De Jong were supposed to be part of a move to evolve Barca’s style of play, but neither have earned much influence yet in a team in which everything still flows through Messi. Both summer arrivals were both substituted at 1-1 on Saturday, with their replacements being 32 year old midfielder Vidal and 17 year old winger Ansu Fati. With Dembele currently in better form than Griezmann, it is quite likely that the €120 million signing from Atletico Madrid player could be on the bench for his return to the Wanda Metropolitano next Sunday.

Before that Barca face Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday, needing to win to avoid what could become a very nervous final group game at Inter Milan. A team which is not playing well has lots of big tests coming up, including the rearranged La Liga Clasico at the Camp Nou on Dec 18.

“This is a really important time for us,” Valverde said on Friday. “What happens after Christmas will be determined a lot by what happens this month.”

The importance of Barca ‘finding a way to win’ was underlined by Atletico Madrid drawing 1-1 at Granada later on Saturday afternoon, with rojiblanco left-back Renan Lodi’s opener quickly cancelled out by German Sanchez’s header, as Diego Simeone’s side again conceded at a set piece.

More worrying for Barca was how Real Madrid reacted to going behind at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in Saturday’s late game when Sergio Ramos’ latest individual mistake was punished by Willian Jose inside two minutes. Madrid took a while to get going, but then took firm control of the game. Karim Benzema equalised with his chest before half-time, and new Bernabeu favourite Fede Valverde’s deflected strike made it 2-1 soon after the break.

Real Madrid look primed to dethrone Barcelona in La Liga

The remainder of the game was mostly noticeable for deafening whistles when Gareth Bale was introduced as a substitute, and even after he was centrally involved in the move from which man of match Luka Modric thrashed in the clinching goal. Bale was actually really good, and generally looked ready to start on Tuesday’s Champions League group game at home to Paris Saint German.

Saturday’s results left Barca and Madrid still joint top of the table, with Atletico three points back and a game more played. Zinedine Zidane’s side look the more focused and confident at the moment, while Valverde’s hopes of getting his midfield sorted for next week’s trip to the Wanda are not helped by Sergio Busquets now being suspended.

Barca flew back to Catalonia on Saturday, but Pique stuck around in Madrid until Sunday afternoon. Despite some complaints from players over scheduling, and some top names not even featuring, he told a press conference at the Caja Magica that ‘his’ reworked Davis Cup had been a “complete success”. It also helped that a super motivated Nadal led Spain to victory over Canada in the final on home hardcourt surface.

Pique must now concentrate on getting back to full form and focus. His team need him as it is already looking like advantage Madrid in the title race. And not beating Dortmund on Wednesday would leave Valverde’s side close to break[ing] point.

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