Nicknamed 'Piquenbauer' in his homeland in honour of the legendary German sweeper Franz Beckenbauer, Barcelona and Spain’s classy centre-back Gerard Pique has already done plenty to justify such comparisons. At the tender age of 23, the 6’3” defender has UEFA Champions League winners’ medals from his time at Manchester United and Barça, while he has been an integral part of La Roja’s run to the semi-finals at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
Indeed, never before have Spain appeared in the semi-finals at the global showpiece, though such was the narrow nature of their 1-0 last-eight win over Paraguay that the achievement took some time to sink in. “Everyone’s still looking quite tense because it was a really tough game,” Pique told FIFA.com.
“Paraguay made life very difficult for us. They kept things very tight at the back, had a few chances and even a penalty. But from that point on I think we controlled the game, created opportunities of our own and, despite also missing a penalty, we managed to grab a goal and win the game.”
La Albirroja strike pair Oscar Cardozo and Nelson Valdez were a constant threat to Pique and his fellow defenders, with the usually unflappable Barcelona man put off his stride to the point of giving away a penalty for a foul on the rangy Benfica hitman. Fortunately for him, Spain captain Iker Casillas was up to the task of saving Cardozo’s tame spot-kick.
“He was brilliant today, the man of the match,” said a clearly relieved Pique, who left Barcelona’s youth system to join United, before returning to the Camp Nou in summer 2008. “Iker saved the penalty and made two fantastic saves later on. It’s a real privilege having him in the side; you know he’ll always come to your rescue.”
Lying in wait for Vicente del Bosque’s charges are a red-hot Germany side, beaten by Spain in the final of UEFA EURO 2008, but who are buoyed by 4-1 and 4-0 knockout victories over England and Argentina respectively.
“They are a great team with wonderful players,” said Pique of his side’s opponents on 7 July at the Durban Stadium. “It’s going to be very tough to stop them because they’re in form and will be hugely confident after emphatic wins over England and Argentina. But we’re looking good too and we’ve proved that we’re solid at the back after not conceding in our last two games.
“It’ll be a very difficult match,” continued Pique, when the question of Die Nationalmannschaft seeking revenge for that continental reverse came up. “There are new players on both sides, such as myself, who didn’t play in the final of EURO 2008. So I’m sure this’ll be a very different game but we’ll be doing our best to win again.”
Scorer of the winning goal in the teams’ European title decider two summers ago was Fernando Torres. With El Niño yet to score at South Africa, Pique was quick to back the Liverpool striker to come good: “He’s definitely going to score at this World Cup. Let’s hope he gets off the mark in the semis.”
One player having no trouble finding the net is David Villa, set to be an Azulgrana team-mate of Pique in 2010/11, who has scored five of Spain’s six goals at the finals on South African soil. “When a striker is on form then everything seems to go in,” said Pique of El Guaje’s 83rd-minute winner against La Albirroja. “The Paraguay game was a clear example. The ball hit both posts before going in, whereas on another day it might have bounced back out again.”
Yet despite boasting the tournament’s top scorer and having safely negotiated their way into the last four, Pique still feels Spain have plenty of work still to do. “We need to start controlling games better. There are periods in games when we’re under the cosh and that’s when we struggle.
“We also need to be more clinical in front of goal. We’re finding it really hard to score and are winning games by just one goal. We need our attackers to be more ruthless, we need to score more goals,” said a player who has literally put his body on the line for the cause during this tournament. Indeed, having needed stitches for a gash received in the melee leading to Switzerland’s winner in Spain’s Group H opener, he burst his lip in a clash with an opposing forward in the very next game against Honduras.
Not that he will mind another couple of scars should La Roja go all the way to a first ever FIFA World Cup crown. “Our aim is to keep making history,” he said as the interview concluded. “Our objective is to win the Trophy and we’ll go home with a sour taste in our mouths if we fall short.”