FC Barcelona face a familiar opponent in Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday and will need their defensive talisman on top form in order to avoid a similar result earlier this season when the two sides met in the French capital.
Gerard Pique was on the bench when a clinical PSG side inflicted upon Luis Enrique his first goals conceded and first defeat as Barcelona manager in a 3-2 loss at the end of September.
The Catalan defender had yet to win over the new boss and was made to earn back his starting spot as Javier Mascherano and Jeremy Mathieu consolidated their status as Barça’s favored center-back pairing.
While Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar typically grab the headlines on most occasions, it has been the inspired resurgence of Pique which has largely contributed to Barça regaining top spot in the league and progressing to their record eighth consecutive Champions League quarter final.
He was the pick of the bunch in Barcelona’s 1-2 win against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium with a series of important challenges while he was near perfect in a win by the same scoreline over Real Madrid at the Camp Nou just last month.
Against slightly less glamorous opponents but of equal importance was his last ditch tackle to prevent Charles from giving Celta Vigo the lead which turned a tough encounter on its head as, just minutes later, fellow center-back Mathieu handed Barça the only goal of the game.
There will be no Zlatan Ibrahimovic for PSG which might seem like a welcome absence from Barcelona’s perspective but it must be reminded that the Swede was also unavailable earlier in the season when the French champions ran Barça’s defense ragged.
The likes of Javier Pastore and Ezequiel Lavezzi gave Barça all the warning signs necessary in that victory and it could take a performance of similar magnitude from Pique to achieve a positive result.
Pique’s error led to the goal which narrowed the margin at the top of La Liga to two points on Saturday, as Sevilla rallied back from two goals down to draw 2-2 at the Sanchez Pizjuan.
While Pique’s uncharacteristic mistake was highlighted as the key incident which ultimately determined the result of the game, the overall performance of the collective had been declining in recent weeks and was no surprise to many that maximum points were not earned in Seville.
The performances in Barcelona’s last four matches have been slightly concerning as the dominant levels demonstrated in recent months have not been on display with signs of tiredness creeping into the Catalans’ play.
On the whole, however, Barça have improved greatly as the season has progressed and have seemingly rectified the flaws which that defeat to PSG back in September exposed.
Two of PSG’s goals in that match came from sloppy defending at set pieces. Since then, Barça have conceded just three of their last 27 goals from set plays.
That form will have to continue as PSG demonstrated their muscle from dead balls in their triumph in the previous round against Chelsea; first through David Luiz to take the game to extra-time and then the tie’s decisive goal from Thiago Silva, also from a corner.
Luis Enrique holds one training session per week specifically on set plays – the team’s improvement at both ends has not happened by chance and more of the same defensive sturdiness will be vital on Wednesday.