Barcelona's Pique: Focus remains on Napoli, not on off-pitch turmoil
NAPLES, Italy -- Gerard Pique says Barcelona's players know the responsibility they have in their hands as they prepare for what could prove a season-defining week with matches against Napoli and Real Madrid.
Barca returned to the top of La Liga on Saturday but have made news for the wrong reasons so far in February. Lionel Messi's clash with sporting director Eric Abidal was followed by allegations that the board hired a third party company to defend the president Josep Maria Bartomeu's image and discredit other people related to the club, including Messi and Pique.
However, Pique wants the club to fend off a potential institutional crisis by continuing to deliver on the pitch, starting with Tuesday's Champions League round of 16 first leg fixture against Napoli in Italy.
"We are focused on what we can control, which is football," Pique said in a news conference on Monday. "In recent years, what has happened on the pitch has been very important for this club. Results have always sustained the club.
"Everything else is a lot of noise and when a club like Barca goes through moments of weakness, it leaves the players less protected. So we know the responsibility we have. If the team works, if the results are good, we know the financial results or whatever else is going on at the club won't matter. What people want is to see Barca win and that's in our hands."
Pique wouldn't get involved in if the club is being well run by the board of directors -- "that's for the club's members to decide when there's an election" -- but did say he was willing to move on from last week's social media scandal, which saw Bartomeu meet with the club's four captains, including Pique, to explain why some of them had been smeared online.
"I don't really care that my name appeared," Pique added. "I believed the president's explanation -- at least that he didn't know [what was going on]. He was really affected by it in the meeting with us. Now let's turn the page. Anything that's not to do with football damages us."
Barca have struggled away from home in Europe in recent seasons. They have suffered heavy defeats at both Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus in the knockout stages, but it's last their last two eliminations, when they threw away first-leg leads against Roma and Liverpool, which continue to haunt them as they target a sixth Champions League trophy.
"We will never forget them," Pique said when asked about the losses at the Stadio Olympico and Anfield. "They were two big blows in the history of the club and in our careers. But I firmly believe that you can learn from the big defeats and look to the future. Every tie is different, we have learned. You can be sure of that."
Barcelona coach Quique Setien says the Roma and Liverpool games have not been spoken about this week but he's "certain" they remain present in his players' minds.
Those painful KOs came under Ernesto Valverde, who Setien replaced in January. The changes have already been apparent, with Napoli coach Gennaro Gattuso revealing his analysis shows they win the ball back in six seconds, almost five seconds quicker than they were doing under Valverde.
"I don't know if it's that quick," Setien responded. "But it's been an important part of our growth. Recovering the ball quickly is vital because it's better if we have the ball."
Another important element of Setien's Barca side is Messi, who scored four times in the weekend La Liga win over Eibar. He was once again the centre of attention on Monday as Barca trained at Napoli's San Paolo, the stadium where his compatriot, Diego Maradona, who he is so often compared to, spent the best years of his career.
"Maradona's a unique player in the history of the game who will be remembered forever," Pique said. "But if you're asking me to pick between Diego and Leo, I would go with the consistency and the magic that Leo produces every day."
Setien added that Messi's remarkable "consistency" over a 15-year period marks him out against other greats, but Napoli's Lorenzo Insigne shied away from taking sides.
"Messi is currently the best player in the world but I won't compare him with Maradona because Diego is sacred for the people of Napoli," he said.