Monday 25 September 2017

Barcelona downplay casino visit by Leo Messi and Gerard Pique

Pique (centre) and Fabregas (left) were joined by Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi (second right)
Pique (centre) and Fabregas (left) were joined by Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi (second right)

Andy Hampson

Barcelona have brushed off talk of controversy over a visit to a casino by two star players ahead of their Champions League clash with Manchester City.

Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique were both pictured outside a casino in Barcelona late on Sunday night, hours before they were to travel to Manchester.

Coming soon after the team's 11-game winning streak was ended by defeat to Malaga in the Primera Division on Saturday, the photographs have prompted renewed talk of crisis at the Nou Camp following difficulties earlier in the season.

But coach Luis Enrique and Pique himself were bemused by discussion of the matter as they arrived at the Etihad Stadium for a press conference to preview the first leg of their last-16 tie with City.

There was certainly no suggestion that either player had broken a curfew or any club rules.

"This guy must work for one of the Spanish channels!" said Luis Enique when the question was put to him by an English journalist. "I concentrate on football, not stuff outside it. No gossip. I am not interested."

Pique, the former Manchester United defender, did not deny that he had been to the casino and was not particularly flustered by mention of it.

The 28-year-old said: "It is my private life. We just had a nice time there."

Pique also downplayed claims that the defeat at the weekend had highlighted tensions between the squad and Luis Enrique.

The Spain international said: "There are no problems between ourselves and the manager. We get on fine, the relationship is good.

"We are just off the bounce of 11 wins. We have demonstrated and know what we have to do. Good results are the only way to show people the team is just like it was three days ago.

"We are playing well, on the right lines. We are playing good football. You can always have the odd slip-up.

"In football, playing against a big team three days after the last defeat is fantastic. You don't have time to reflect.

"We are still considered to be one of the top five teams in the world. I don't think there is anything more at stake other than playing for a place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, but it is one of the most important games of the last few weeks."

Barca are playing City in the last-16 of Europe's elite club competition for a second successive season. The Catalans prevailed last year, 4-1 on aggregate, after a 2-0 win in the first leg in Manchester.

City overcame that disappointment by going on to claim the Barclays Premier League title and Luis Enrique expects a close contest this time.

He said: "We are hoping to win the trophy so we have to go through games like this. I don't think there is a favourite in this game.

"I don't know if there is a bigger gap or if the gap has closed. City have strengthened in the summer, we have too.

"What happens on the pitch tomorrow will show if the gap has closed."

Pique believes City are weakened without his former team-mate Yaya Toure, who is suspended for the first leg.

City did secure famous back-to-back wins against Bayern Munich and Roma to qualify for the knockout stages without their star midfielder, but their domestic form during his recent absence for the African Nations Cup was poor.

Pique said: "He is a very, very important player for them. When he plays and when he doesn't there is a difference."

As a club, City are hardly recognisable from when Pique played across town at United, from 2004-08, and he has been impressed by their progress.

He said: "In the Premier League they are showing they are one of the best teams in the world. I hope - but not this year - in the next years they will be fighting for this competition."

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