Manchester City were last night given grounds for encouragement in their vital Champions League clash with Barcelona after the Spanish side’s coach Luis Enrique refused to defend Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique over a late-night casino visit made hours before their flight to England.
Pique last night asserted his right to be with Messi and Cesc Fabregas at the casino, in the basement of the Hotel Arts building on the Barcelona sea front. “It is my private life. We just had a nice time there,” the defender said.
Messi’s justification for visiting a casino 11 hours before the Barça squad’s flight to Manchester is thought to be that he was visiting Fabregas, the Chelsea player, who has an apartment in the complex. While this is not likely to become a disciplinary issue, the coach was clearly not happy to be confronted with it on the eve of the most important game of the season so far.
Asked about the casino visit, Enrique initially poured scorn on his questioner, who was British, suggesting that he might be from one of the two Spanish radio stations which he considers to be trouble-makers. The coach then asked: “What did the player say?” When told of Pique’s defence, he said: “I concentrate on football not stuff outside it. I am not interested.”
Enrique’s press conference revealed his irritation with questions about Barcelona’s morale. When asked about the strength of team spirit, after the defeat to Malaga on Saturday which followed 11 successive wins, he replied: “Very nice friendly question, on the same lines as always.”
Yet his relationship with Messi has certainly been strained, with the three times Ballon d’Or winner declaring last month that his future might lie beyond Spain. Enrique, 44, a club legend during an eight-year career as a midfielder at the club, did not agree with the view – voiced by Messi last week – that an improved atmosphere behind the scenes has improved Barcelona’s form. “I am not interested in creating problems and so I am not going to discuss it further,” he said. “If he thinks that way then it is fantastic.”
Enrique admitted at last night’s press conference that harmony at the Nou Camp was difficult to maintain. “This is just the environment we find ourselves in,” he said. “[It] is the fans, the surroundings of the club, ex-players, it is difficult to evaluate that…. You sometimes need extra things at this club to decorate the tree of life. I just need to concentrate on football. Everyone has their own strategy.”
Enrique’s press conference shattered the usual serenity which accompanies Barcelona on occasions like this. Midfielder Samir Nasri said earlier in the day that his side had shown Barça too much respect in losing last season’s Champions League round of 16 game 2-0 at the Etihad and that they were “not going to be scared” this time around.
Barcelona’s Luis Suarez returns to English soil yesterday as he arrives at Manchester Airport ahead of his side’s Champions League tie against City on Tuesday night
City manager Manuel Pellegrini, who said James Milner would be fit, denied that he been tactically too cautious in that game. But Nasri disagreed, insisting that the club must show more ambition and less respect as they faced the same opposition at the Etihad.
“Yeah, I think we respected them too much but at the same time last year we were not experienced to compete with a club like this,” Nasri said. “With their history, they know how to play in these kind of games and know how to win the Champions League. For us it was the first time that we went through the group stage and I think it was too much of a big game for us and we were not ready yet. I think that this year is totally different because we know what we are capable of. We are going to respect them as a club but we are not going to be scared, we’re just going to play and try to win.”
City have never beaten a top European side in this competition when there has been something at stake for the opposing side and Nasri said that they needed to defeat Enrique’s side to engender a love of the Champions League for their own supporters. He admitted City fans had not fallen in love with the competition.