When Gerard Piqué told Sir Alex Ferguson that he was leaving Old Trafford in summer 2008 the Scot’s anger almost prevented the £5 million transfer to Barcelona. Piqué, thought Ferguson, had gone behind his Manchester United manager’s back to secure a move ‘home’. The incident very nearly ended the deal. Ferguson relented and three years on Piqué is no longer a United reserve but essential to both new club and his country.
In many senses its a remarkable rise for the 23-year-old, who spent four years in Manchester and appeared 25 times for the club, but failed to make a breakthrough into Ferguson’s first team. Having won at European and World level in the past three seasons, Piqué has achieved far more than anybody could have predicted for the unassuming Barcelona-born player.
Indeed, four largely stagnant years away from home could have shaped a career in a very different way. Yet, the former-Barça youth team player, who graduated from the same La Masia academy as Lionel Messi, is far from bitter about his experience under Ferguson’s tutelage.
“It was a difficult time and there were hard moments when you don’t understand why you’re not playing,” Piqué told UEFA.com.
“But they had two great central defenders, Rio and Vidić, so it was tough for me to get a chance. It was still a great experience to play there with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney, van Nistelrooy. I went there when I was 17 and came back when I was 21. The Gerard who went was very different to the one who came back.
“With Sir Alex we talked openly, and I never had a problem. Although I didn’t play a lot, I had a good relationship with him. Then I got the offer from Barcelona and I went up to him and told him ‘It is a pleasure to play here, but I would like to leave’, that I wanted to go back home. He tried to convince me otherwise, but he understood.”
When the player returned to Catalonia, far from being farmed out to the ‘B’ side as many expected, Piqué was thrust into the centre of Barça’s defence alongside the incomparable Carles Puyol. It was a tough baptism of course; from playing in front of 500 at Moss Lane, Altrincham for United’s reserves to the intimidating Camp Nou atmosphere on début against Wisla Krakow.
Yet, in the intervening years Piqué has not only established himself in Pep Guardiola’s side but become the mainstay of the Catalan’s defence. The former-Red will marshal Barça’s back-four against United, with Puyol expected to play at left-back in Eric Abidal’s absence.
It is a role that Piqué will no doubt relish having already been a key man in Barça’s 2-0 victory in Rome two years ago. After all, the goal saving tackle on Park Ji-Sung with barely a minute gone almost certainly changed the game in the Catalans’ favour.
Not that his former team-mates ever had any doubt about the player’s ability; only the opportunity Piqué may have been afforded in a crowded United squad.
“Everyone knew Piqué had talent,” adds Rio Ferdinand.
“But English football is different. If you asked him if he could have been where he is now if he had been playing for Manchester United, he would probably have said ‘I don’t know’. When you get a chance, you have to take it. He has gone to Spain, is winning trophies with Barcelona and is doing fantastically well, so you have to give him credit for that.”
Piqué’s essential contribution to Barça is not only defensive though. In the Catalan giant’s tiki-taka style Piqué is the man charged with starting the next wave of Barça attack. It’s a role that will bring the player into direct conflict with Wayne Rooney if the United forward begins the game in the deep-lying ‘number 10′ role.
Piqué, who has real turn of speed despite the casual style, will also be a key man in combating Javier Hernández’ explosive pace. This is true whether Piqué lines up alongside 33-year-old Puyol or former Liverpool midfielder Javier Mascherano.
It is, however, Rooney who draws Piqué’s focus. Understandable perhaps, given the friendship the pair struck up in Manchester. Indeed, Rooney sent the defender a message of congratulations after Barcelona knocked Real Madrid out of the competition at the semi-final stage.
“He is one of the best strikers in the game and has scored a lot of goals,” Piqué said of his former teammate.
“I will have to concentrate hard to not to give him space. I have a good friendship with him but we both want to win this game and we will be fighting for our own interests. Rooney congratulated me on Twitter the day after we eliminated Madrid. It was always difficult playing against him in training as it is with Messi now.”
It is a battle that may shape a final. The boy who at 17 would call his mother to say “everything was fine” when in the reality he was holding back the tears has come a long way. It is the man now central to Barça’s cause who may break United’s hearts.