Gerard Pique knows all about the glory of winning the Clasico, having scored in the famous 6-2 win for Barcelona in Madrid in 2009 and played in the 5-0 a year later when Jose Mourinho was humbled on his debut as a manager in the fixture.
On Saturday he welcomes a new team-mate to the ‘greatest show on earth’: the high-wire artist Luis Suarez, capable of wowing the crowds, but also of falling from great heights as he did at the World Cup.
‘I don’t care if he bites,’ says Pique, speaking in English ahead of Saturday’s game. He immediately corrects himself. ‘I don’t care if he’s bitten before,’ he says. ‘He knows it’s not the correct way to behave but as a player he is in the top three or five strikers in the world so I am really happy to have him in my team.’ Pique knows Suarez will bring a toughness that has at times been missing from Barcelona’s make-up over the last two seasons.
Barcelona's Gerard Pique (centre) jokes with Luis Suarez (left) and Lionel Messi (right) at training on Friday
Barcelona manager Luis Enrique (pictured, behind) confirmed Suarez is set to make his competitive debut
In 10 years of Clasicos Pique has seen tensions rise during the clashes between Barcelona and Real Madrid
‘He is a different style of player for us. We have Andres Iniesta and Xavi and they are sweet players and you can enjoy watching them on the ball, it’s easy on the eye. Not with Suarez. He fights and scraps for the ball and finally gets the goal. In training you see that ultra-competitive streak. You can kick him and he just never goes down. You pull his shirt and he still goes towards the goal. It’s true that he had a reputation in England (for diving) but you fall once in the Premier League and it sticks. I have found him to be a very fair player.’
HOW LUIS SUAREZ WOULD FIT IN
Pique has spent plenty of time up close and personal with the new man as Barcelona are put through their paces by Luis Enrique, the coach who is also preparing for his first clasico, as a manager at least.
Pique, the joker, was never going to let last summer’s event pass without training-ground comment.
‘Of course we have been teasing him a little bit. Last week we had a defensive drill to practise dealing with crosses. He was the attacker and I had to defend against him and two or three times we were fighting to get to the ball first and I’d say, “Don’t bite me”. He just smiles.’
Those training drills have also reinforced just what a natural finisher Suarez is. ‘In training it’s unbelievable,’ says Pique. ‘He has got that instinct that means when there are two or three rebounds in the box, the ball will always end up at his feet and he’ll score.’
Suarez shared the Golden Boot last season with Cristiano Ronaldo, Pique’s former Manchester United team-mate whom he will face on Saturday and against whom he usually fares well. Pique admits that good record is in part owed to what were brilliant team performances as Barcelona reached near perfection under their greatest ever coach.
Suarez has said biting is 'like an impulse' and that 'everyone has different ways of defending themselves'
‘In the first three or four years with Pep Guardiola I think we played the best football I can remember. And we took that into the games against Real Madrid,’ Pique says. ‘In the last two or three years it has been a little bit more difficult for us but now we have changed the mentality with Luis Enrique and we are pressing very high again and Suarez will definitely help that.’
To what extent the Uruguayan can help power Barcelona’s rediscovered high intensity after four months out will be tested on Saturday. ‘In those first few training sessions you could see that he needed to train because he was dead after 10 minutes of work,’ admits Pique. ‘I would turn around and look at him and say, “What happened to you, man?” But after two or three weeks he started to improve and now, as he showed against Oman in the last friendly for Uruguay, he is in good condition.’
The spotlight will also be on Pique on Saturday. He has been left out at times this season — something that has never happened since the days of waiting in vain for Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic to pick up an injury or suspension at United.
The striker is set to make his competitive debut against Real Madrid on Saturday night after a four-month ban
The Uruguayan has also said that he is in now on the 'right path' after seeking help for his impulses to bite
Pique was a world champion with Spain and a European champion with Barcelona aged just 23. ‘It’s been a strange career having hit such incredible heights so soon. It’s not a strange career, it’s a very good career,’ he says. ‘And now here at Barcelona, it is the first time that I am not playing as much as I want to. It’s a big challenge.’
In 10 years of clasicos he has seen tensions rise during the clashes between Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, and fall since their departure.
‘To be fair I really kind of enjoyed it,’ Pique says. ‘It is true that maybe sometimes they crossed the line. And we crossed the line, too. It is just a game. But it is fine if you know how to control your emotions and everything on the pitch stays on the pitch and after the game you still have the same friendships.’
It somewhat underlines his point that former Real Madrid player Xabi Alonso now plays for Guardiola and former Barcelona team-mate Cesc Fabregas now plays for Mourinho. ‘It’s football. One day you say you hate someone and the next day you’re playing for them,’ says Pique. ‘We have a career and we always have to try to make the best of it. Fabregas loves London and so he went to Chelsea and Mourinho was there and Mourinho likes him so he said, “OK, I will play there”.’ Pique almost says that Fabregas loves Mourinho too but the old allegiances seem to prevent him getting the whole sentence out. ‘He loves Mo . . . well, I don’t know if he loves Mourinho but I think he does because he’s putting him in the team all the time and here at Barcelona it was more difficult for him,’ he says. ‘You can see after two or three months there that he made the right decision.’
Would Pique follow Fabregas back to the Premier League if United came calling? ‘I left a lot of friends at United and I was really happy there even though I did not play as much as I wanted to,’ he says. ‘But I always said that I want to retire here and if it is possible I want to stay here all my career. At this moment I am not thinking about leaving. I am really happy if it is true that Manchester United want me but I want to stay. I have been a Barcelona fan since I was a kid and all I want to do is to have success here.’
Pique (right) has been sidelined on occasion this season — something of a rarity for the Barcelona defender
On the pitch he still believes he can reach the heights of four years ago and away from football he is thriving at the head of the small company Kerad Games that has recently extended its Golden Manager online football game to mobile platforms.
The game is popular with his own team-mates and involves each player picking his own team — which begs the obvious question: who’s in your forward line, Gerard? ‘Leo and Cristiano for sure,’ he says. ‘And I had (Wayne) Rooney before but now . . . now it would have to be Suarez.’
l Sky Sports is showing more of the games that matter in an unrivalled schedule of football, including El Clasico and Man Utd v Chelsea this weekend.