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Pique in from cold for Drogba mission

They used to call him Piquenbauer, then they stopped calling. Gerard Pique comes back in from the cold tonight for the biggest game of Barcelona's season, and with the job of stopping Didier Drogba.

The cornerstone of Barcelona's incredible success over the last three seasons, majestically striding out from the back, generating so much of their play, giving them height in the penalty area and leadership in the dressing-room, Pique was left out of the the first leg at Stamford Bridge and then out of the Clasico on Saturday.

"Of course I would have liked to play against Chelsea and Real Madrid but it would be a mistake to think about those two games -- that will not take me anywhere," he said.

This season, after playing a big part in the 13 trophies lifted so far during Pep Guardiola's reign, he has started and finished only 12 of 34 league games and three full matches in the 11 Champions League fixtures Barca have played.

Controversy has surrounded both omissions. At Stamford Bridge, he never joined the pre-match warm-up with the other substitutes and, on Saturday, news of him being dropped again reached the Madrid-supporting Radio Marca two hours before the game, along with the entire first XI. Guardiola sought out the leak's source after the match.

"I don't think anyone leaked the news on the tactics for the Clasico. We trained on the pitch and any family member or friend of a player could have let the news slip, so it's easy for that news to reach the press," Pique said.

Asked if he believed he had been left out for just football reasons -- a reference to his off-field profile as pop star Shakira's boyfriend increasing as his on-field role has diminished -- Pique said: "I hope it is but you would have to ask him (Guardiola)."

What cannot be doubted is that he has been missed. One of the reasons given for leaving Pique out of the first leg was to give Barcelona greater pace in the centre of their defence.

The coach was worried about counter-attacks and his concerns were justified as Chelsea raced away to score before half-time.

Guardiola admitted at the weekend that his opposite number, Roberto di Matteo, had surprised him by swapping Ramires' wing to play him against Dani Alves.

Alves was missing in action for the goal and, once Ramires had left Xavi in his wake, neither Javier Mascherano nor Carles Puyol was able to get across to block the cross or deal with its recipient, Drogba. So much for Pique's lack of pace being a hindrance to Barca keeping a clean sheet.

He will return tonight alongside Mascherano, with Puyol moving to left-back, and on the eve of the crunch match he spoke of Barcelona feeling no fatigue ahead of their chance to make history by becoming the first team to retain the Champions League.

Lionel Messi must also have missed Pique. He has had to come deeper and deeper to look for the ball, with no Pique to bring it out from the back.

But the defender denied that the team suffered from what is commonly known in Barcelona as 'Messidependence'.

"It's true that Messi is very important for us and his goals have been vital to us, but we have other scorers," Pique said.

"This is a team and others can also win games for us."

Messi has drawn a blank in the last two games and failed to get a single shot on target in the weekend's 2-1 home defeat in the Clasico. He and his team-mates looked tired.

Guardiola said recently: "If we reach the final this year then we will have played every game possible in three of the last four years."

Pique said: "Tiredness isn't on anyone's mind. How many chances have Barcelona had to reach a Champions League final? We have to give it all we have to make it to Munich."

Guardiola has never lost three consecutive games, and after the weekend defeat some talked not of fatigue but of the end of an era. Pique gave the idea short shrift.

"It is very easy to talk about the end of the era but we have won 13 trophies and when other teams have won that many in the same time, then we can talk about the end of an era," he said.

"People have written us off before -- last season we were written off after losing the Copa del Rey and then we went on to win the Champions League."

The visitors need to avoid a backlash like that tonight. "Statistics are there to be broken," said Pique when reminded of Barca's terrible record against Chelsea -- the only team Guardiola has never beaten in 52 opponents.

"If we play as we played at Stamford Bridge, then we have a great chance to go through." (© Independent News Service)

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Irish Independent