Barcelona's second-most important player isn't who you think – and finally deserves plaudits

Gerard Pique has shrugged off a tough stretch at the Camp Nou to reclaim his place at the top of the tree behind Lionel Messi, says David Cartlidge...

If Barcelona are to overcome Paris Saint-Germain in their Champions League quarter-final encounter, and on an even bigger scale banish the memories of a first trophyless season in six years, then there will be several key factors helping them along the way.

Lionel Messi will be the obvious one. Then there's the showdown that took place in the Camp Nou dressing room to resolve differences between Luis Enrique and his players earlier in the campaign.

Throw in Luis Suarez’s arrival too, and the astute signing of Claudio Bravo, and together they make for significant Catalan improvement. As much as Messi has been a constant, however, so too has Gerard Pique.

That’s right, Pique. A man, and a defender, who has found himself again. Found himself as in being one of the best centre-backs in the world again, much to Barca’s dividend.

That statement doesn’t sit well with some, though. Pique splits opinion outside of the club, and inside it, like few do. At one point, the 28-year-old’s stock tumbled like that of any normal player. Move along, nothing to see here. But those people were wrong to write him off so early.

Pique is back on the bounce alongside Lionel & Co.

Pampered prince

The caveat with Pique is that there are several. Firstly, the retirement of stalwart central defender Carles Puyol immediately brought him much greater responsibility. When you add to that a popstar girlfriend and an apparent unhealthy appetite for extra-curricular activities, you have a problem. 

Then there's also his background. Pique, even before he became a footballer, enjoyed a life of prestige. He hails from a respected family with power in political and economic Catalan circles, happens to be the son of a prestigious doctor, and grandson of a former Barcelona director.

Confident, outgoing and with the looks to support his swagger, Pique initially looked to inherit his father's business, but now wants to make a beeline for Barca presidency one day.

Even his smile, for some, is too much to stomach. Few players have had their torsos inspected by the media quite like Pique – and not in the sense of appealing to female admirers either.

"C'mere and let me see if those hips still aren't telling porkies"

On the other hand, Puyol, from a far removed background of a small city, family and humble surroundings, never stepped out of line. Pique has always been the boy who got it all and still couldn't do anything with it.

Admittedly the great Puyol struggled early on, and was weak in certain defensive aspects, but his character was never called into question. He set the bar high for others to attain, and it’s one few can grasp.

Pique, in his darkest moments, got nowhere near and there were genuine calls for his sale. He was linked with a return to Manchester United, and many judged it to be best for all parties. Sign Mats Hummels from Borussia Dortmund in his place, and that’s a good piece of business.

The defender was one of the chief victims of a post-Pep Guardiola era, and more so under Tata Martino. Few came out of that process with their reputations intact, let alone increased.

Pique's focus was lost, a hangover from the successful years, and it's motivation he has admitted is difficult to come by in certain moments. Pique has never been one to shy away from his detractors, conceding that his form was well below par and, in turn, he needed to mature more.