Former Real Madrid defender Oscar Ruggeri labelled Barcelona star Gerard Pique a "bang-average" player, while insisting Sergio Ramos is the best centre-back in the world.

Pique has enjoyed great success since re-joining boyhood club Barca from Manchester United in 2008, winning eight LaLiga trophies and three Champions League titles among other honours to establish himself as one of the world's best defenders.

The 33-year-old is also a World Cup and European Championship winner with Spain.

However, ex-defender Ruggeri – a 1986 World Cup champion with Argentina who spent a season playing for Madrid in 1989-90 – talked down Pique as he hailed Los Blancos and Spain captain Ramos.

"Pique is a second-rate [player], like me, like many others," Ruggeri told FOX Sports Argentina.

"He's good looking, he's with the singer [Shakira]... he has a cool beard, but if he played for Valencia, he wouldn't be well known.

"Pique ended up playing for Barcelona. He's like me – bang average. A good defender, but not much else.

"He doesn't get put under pressure, except against the big teams.

"Sergio Ramos is the best [centre-back] in the world, by far."

Athletic Bilbao captain Iker Muniain became the latest player to question refereeing decisions involving Real Madrid after Sergio Ramos scored a decisive penalty at San Mames.

Madrid were made to work hard for a 1-0 victory on Sunday - their seventh win in a row - as Zinedine Zidane's men moved seven points clear at the top of the LaLiga table.

But Athletic were unhappy with the award of the spot-kick from which Ramos clinched the points, with Dani Garcia's trip on Marcelo spotted only after a VAR review.

Muniain was particularly frustrated as there was then no similar call made at the other end of the pitch when Ramos appeared to step on Raul Garcia's foot off the ball.

He said: "Raul Garcia has been stamped on and they haven't even reviewed it. That's the difference.

"We've seen the theme in these weeks since the restart - depending on which teams it is, some decisions are given.

"Everyone can draw their own conclusions."

Barcelona stalwart Gerard Pique has previously suggested it would be difficult to stop Madrid winning the title because decisions too often go their way.

Those claims prompted Ramos to respond: "People shouldn't be imagining things!"

Sergio Ramos says people "shouldn't be imagining things" when it comes to Real Madrid benefitting from decisions in an apparent riposte towards Gerard Pique and Barcelona.

Zinedine Zidane's side moved back to the top of LaLiga by virtue of their superior head-to-head record on Wednesday with a 2-0 win over Real Mallorca, thanks to goals from Ramos and Vinicius Junior.

Madrid reclaimed top spot after LaLiga's return this month due to Barcelona's 0-0 draw with Sevilla last Friday, after which Pique suggested it would be hard to stop Los Blancos winning the title because VAR and referee decisions too often go their way.

Ramos, though, thinks such arguments are only being made now that Madrid have the edge in the title race.

"There's a lot of noise in the media because we're leaders again," he told Movistar. "They didn't talk so much before. They talk about VAR, but I don't think anyone has an advantage over the season.

"We don't pay attention to this noise. I don't think they [the referees] take any predetermined decisions. It seems like we should be thanking the refs for being leaders! People shouldn't be imagining things.

"We've been working hard and since the lockdown, we've been united, and we deserve to be where we are."

Ramos became the top-scoring defender in LaLiga history against Real Sociedad last week and his goal on Wednesday, his 69th in the top flight, made him the first defender to reach eight in a single season since Ezequiel Garay 13 years ago.

However, the Madrid captain remains far more concerned with team performances and admitted they felt tired as the Mallorca match went on.

"I've always said this is a team game at the end of the day," he said. "The personal side makes you feel proud and motivates you but it's secondary. The most important thing is the consistency of the team. It's a job well done and three more points.

"The team was tired, we felt that. Obviously, we don't have long to recover between games, and we have to continue improving. We all know what our objective is but there are plenty of things we can improve.

"Our play stagnated a little at times, but I think we can generally improve in all aspects. We could have put the game to bed earlier and taken more chances, played with the ball in their half. That's what we want to do: we want to dominate more."

Barcelona coach Quique Setien disagreed with Gerard Pique and believes Real Madrid will drop points late in the LaLiga season.

Setien's men were held to a 0-0 draw at Sevilla on Friday, giving Madrid the chance to join them on 65 points when they visit Real Sociedad.

Pique said it was hard to see Madrid dropping points in their remaining nine games, but Setien disagreed.

"I think that about Pique is the frustration of the moment. We were very confident because we had 30 very good minutes at the beginning of the game and then we got messy," he said, via AS.

"In the second half, we lost balls that gave them life.

"Tomorrow, he will surely think differently because I am sure that Madrid will not win everything."

A win against Sociedad on Sunday would send Madrid top of the table thanks to their head-to-head record against Barcelona after their El Clasico victory in March.

But Setien, whose side host Athletic Bilbao on Tuesday, is remaining upbeat.

"The rivals always have things to say, there are very tough confrontations and you have to be optimistic," he said.

"We don't depend on ourselves, but you have to be optimistic."

Gerard Pique said it was hard to see Real Madrid dropping points between now and the end of the season after Barcelona handed Zinedine Zidane's team a huge title boost.

A goalless draw at Sevilla on Friday opened the door for Madrid to potentially join Barcelona at the top of LaLiga on Sunday, when they tackle Real Sociedad at Anoeta.

Pique could not inspire Barcelona to find a breakthrough at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium, leaving the race for glory wide open again.

He said afterwards: "It's going to be difficult to win this league. We're going to do everything we can but very few points will be lost.

"From what I've seen in recent weeks, it's going to be very difficult for Real Madrid to lose points."

Lionel Messi went close with a first-half free-kick and provided a familiar spark at times, but Barcelona faded after a bright opening 30 minutes.

Pique felt he and his team-mates missed an opportunity to take another three points, but he might later reflect on how it might have been worse.

Sevilla defender Sergio Reguilon, on loan from Real Madrid, had a glorious last-gasp chance but made a hash of a close-range shot and Marc-Andre ter Stegen made a comfortable save.

After this weekend, both frontrunners will have eight games left to play in the league.

Asked if it felt as though two points had got away in Seville, Pique said: "Yes, because we were in control and had more chances. They looked a bit tired. I think we were good with the ball but there was little space. We couldn't get the goal."

Gerard Pique was "bullied" out of the Premier League because he could not handle Bolton Wanderers' physicality, according to Wayne Rooney.

Before he returned to Barcelona and became a key figure in sides that won La Liga and the Champions League on multiple occasions, Pique spent four years at Manchester United.

However, with Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand the regular centre-back pairing of choice for Alex Ferguson, Pique only featured in 12 Premier League games prior to re-joining Barca in 2008.

And it was a game in Pique's final season - a 1-0 loss to Bolton when the 20-year-old was hauled off after 59 minutes - which Rooney believed spelled the end for his time at Old Trafford.

"Bolton away more or less finished Gerard Pique's career at United," Rooney wrote in his column for The Sunday Times.

"He was young and got bullied there and I think that's when Fergie decided that, physically, he wasn't right for the Premier League.

"I always remember Vidic: if we were going to Bolton — and it was the same when he was about to face Didier Drogba — he would be in the gym for two or three days before, pumping himself up."

Bolton's only goal that day came courtesy of Nicolas Anelka, when he took advantage of a mistimed Pique leap to score.

Pique has since gone on to win 28 major honours with his boyhood club Barca.

The defender also has over 100 caps for Spain and was part of La Roja teams that won World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012.

Gerard Pique said he has not seen superstar team-mate Lionel Messi train as Barcelona step up their LaLiga preparations with individual sessions amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Messi and Barca returned to training on Friday, albeit via individual sessions due to the COVID-19 crisis, with the squad divided over three pitches to ensure social-distancing requirements are upheld.

Barca followed a similar routine on Saturday as LaLiga hopes to resume in mid-June, having suspended the 2019-20 campaign in March.

"I didn't have any contact with Messi on the pitch, I only spoke to him on my mobile phone," Barca defender Pique told Movistar's El Partidazo.

"I didn't see him train either, I just crossed him in the parking lot. All the footballers we train in different fields. I am with Sergi Roberto and [Sergio] Busquets in a field, but we are separated."

Defending champions Barca were two points clear of bitter rivals Real Madrid through 27 matches when the season was postponed.

Barca head coach Quique Setien has previously said it would be logical for the Spanish giants to receive the title if the season was incomplete – a view strongly opposed by Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

Pique, though, would prefer to finish the campaign, adding: "I understand LaLiga's interest in finishing the season because there's a lot at stake.

"Despite being leaders, it would be quite ugly to win that way.

"We've spent a lot of time out of action and we have to keep in mind we need to be well prepared to avoid the risk of injuries, a few days of training more wouldn't be bad."

"They've kept us very well informed; [LaLiga president] Javier Tebas has dedicated many hours to it," Pique continued.

"There are people who are scared and it's important that everyone follows the protocol to the finest detail. It's better training as a group but we have to adapt."

While the football world may be at a standstill due to the coronavirus pandemic, that's not stopping transfer rumours from swirling in their usual manner, with Sevilla's Diego Carlos a name persistently mentioned of late.

A Brazilian centre-back recruited from Nantes last year in a reported €15million deal, the 27-year-old is enjoying a fine debut campaign in LaLiga, quickly establishing himself as a fan favourite and key member of Julen Lopetegui's team, who are third in LaLiga.

An impressive physical specimen, athletic and comfortable with the ball at his feet, Diego Carlos has been most intensely linked with Liverpool – Jurgen Klopp is said to be a big fan and has apparently identified him as a potential partner for Virgil van Dijk.

But Barcelona and Real Madrid have also been mentioned as admirers, having been able to have a close-up look at him in LaLiga.

With a €75m release clause, Diego Carlos certainly won't come cheap – but we've examined Opta's data to compare him with 16 of Europe's best centre-backs…

THE HOLLYWOOD PASS

The Sevilla team Diego Carlos plays in is quite direct, as such it's no surprise to see he plays a large portion (229) of his passes long – of our select group, only Van Dijk (281), Leonardo Bonucci (249) and Mats Hummels (235) have attempted more.

That undoubtedly impacts his overall pass accuracy of 83 per cent, the worst of the 17 players examined. However, Sergio Ramos has attempted only 10 fewer long-range passes, yet his overall completion rate is significantly better at 91 per cent.

His accuracy is even more unimpressive in the opposition's half, as it comes down to 64 per cent, compared to Ramos and Clement Lenglet at 87 per cent. Nevertheless, Sevilla's vertical style of play is significantly different to the setups of Real Madrid and, in particular, Barcelona, while the data does not take into account how difficult each pass was.

Regular Sevilla watchers will tell you Diego Carlos has a penchant for an eye-catching cross-field pass, but the data doesn't lie – many don't reach their target.

Only 48 per cent of his long-range passes find a team-mate, which again is the worst of the players analysed. It poses the question as to whether such a direct system is suited to Diego Carlos' attributes.

He is less prone to giving the ball away when distributing short – as you would expect most players to be – as he finds a Sevilla player with 90 per cent of those passes, but only Harry Maguire (89 per cent) has a lower record in this scenario, the highest being Presnel Kimpembe (96 per cent).

MUSCLE FOR A TUSSLE

Don't let his clean-cut, well-coiffed exterior fool you - one thing Diego Carlos certainly cannot be accused of is shying away from collision. He has been involved in 196 duels this season, with only Maguire (287), Van Dijk (247), Ramos (213) and Mats Hummels (205) from our select group recording more.

The Brazilian's success rate of 56 per cent in those duels is middling, though. Van Dijk leads the way here, coming out on top 75 per cent of the time in such situations.

But Diego Carlos does come off fairly well with respect to tackling, having attempted 30 and been successful 19 times. That gives him a success rate of 63 per cent, better than 10 others in this select group, including Van Dijk (55 per cent) and Ramos (62 per cent).

Diego Carlos isn't dribbled past very often either, with only eight occurrences of that this term. Six of the chosen group have better records, though three of them are on seven and only one – Leonardo Bonucci (two) – has been beaten fewer than six times.

GET RID!

The clearances metric is where Diego Carlos performs best. He has found himself in the right position to clear danger 128 times in 2019-20, the third best among defenders in LaLiga.

Only Van Dijk (135) and Maguire (132) have a better record in this area from our group, though it's worth bearing in mind the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and others do not find themselves in defensive situations as often as Sevilla.

He also leads the way in terms of headed clearances in LaLiga with 71, just shy of Maguire's 80, while Diego Carlos' 25 interceptions is a solid effort as well, though it is some way behind the Manchester United captain's 53.

While it's fair to say Diego Carlos still has areas of his game that can be improved, it's worth stressing that some data points reflect – or are influenced heavily by – the team's setup.

Although the accuracy of Diego Carlos' long passes – a feature of Sevilla's direct system – leaves a mark against his name here, as an out-and-out defender, he is not disgraced when compared to a group of centre-backs most would consider the elite, an applaudable feat given this is only his fourth season in one of Europe's top-five leagues.

Defenders included in the select group: Virgil van Dijk, Harry Maguire, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Raphael Varane, Presnel Kimpembe, Marquinhos, Dayot Upamecano, Benjamin Pavard, Mats Hummels, Manuel Akanji, Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, Milan Skriniar, Kalidou Koulibaly

 

LaLiga Fest raised more than €625,000 on Saturday as Barcelona stalwart Gerard Pique spoke of the need for unity amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Where Saturday nights would normally consist of fixtures in Spain's top flight, the live action was restricted to performances on an internet stream.

A host of LaLiga stars - including Pique - addressed supporters, while musicians performed at the online festival.

Fans were encouraged to donate to the Banco Santander Foundation, where the money would be used to buy medical equipment to combat COVID-19.

There have been over 72,000 confirmed cases of the virus in Spain, with close to 6,000 deaths.

The total raised ticked past €625,000 as the festival ended, although donations would continue to be welcomed until Sunday afternoon.

Barca's Pique was the most high-profile star to address those watching, as he claimed players and supporters alike could be "invincible together".

"Without training, at home and trying to stay in shape, it is not easy," the World Cup winner said. "We will get through it between all of us.

"It is a difficult situation, but doing something like what LaLiga is doing makes us feel proud of the players and the fans.

"It is something unique that means any LaLiga fan is able to contribute their grain of sand. I am very happy to be able to participate in such an initiative.

"There is rivalry when we are on the field of play, but when people need us, we are united.

"There will be a cost, it is difficult, we will have difficult times. Others will suffer it in person, but we have to make it through together. We are all invincible together."

Gerard Pique has defended Barcelona assistant Eder Sarabia for his foul-mouthed rant in El Clasico and insisted the players welcome his intense approach in the dugout.

Barca returned to winning ways with a 1-0 triumph over Real Sociedad on Saturday, six days after their desperately disappointing LaLiga loss to rivals Real Madrid at Santiago Bernabeu.

Ahead of the clash with Sociedad, head coach Quique Setien described the focus on Sarabia's outburst against his players during the Clasico as "a bit embarrassing" and urged his assistant to show control.

Setien also apologised to the squad, but Pique stressed that was not necessary after playing the full match at Camp Nou.

"The assistant coach is full of adrenaline and intensity which manifested itself in this way at the Bernabeu, but it is all completely normal for us," Pique said after Lionel Messi's late penalty gave Barca victory.

"All the players discussed it in the dressing room. The boss apologised and we told him that nothing had come from us; if anything it [the controversy] related to the image of the club.

"What's more, we like that there's intensity in the dugout and they are living [the game] too.

"When the club is weak, these types of things come up. A few weeks ago, the talk was about the players not having a huddle before the game because of the change of coach, then it was the warm-up was different.

"It's the same thing. It's another story that happens after a defeat and you always have to go out and deny it. [Sarabia's behaviour] is completely normal."

Pique was relieved to get the job done against a Real Sociedad team who had won six straight matches coming into the clash.

"We knew it was going to be very tough because we are coming from the defeat at the Bernabeu and they are having an exceptional season and they've reached the final of the Copa," said the Spain defender.

"It wasn't going to be easy; they play good football, we try to, and the game was decided by the small details.

"Some hands inside the penalty area have given us the three very important points that are going to help us fight for the title."

Sarabia had also addressed the topic prior to the match and insisted he will remain passionate in his approach.

"My spirit will never change," he said to Movistar. "It's more about ways [of doing things] than the substance.

"It's true that we have to set an example for lot of people, for children. We have to be careful with certain things.

"But I'm going to keep experiencing football intensely, I'm proud to be the way that I am and I'll keep it up, keep working and keep going."

Sergio Ramos hit back at Gerard Pique over his criticism of Real Madrid, saying he would sign to win every El Clasico playing as badly as the Barcelona defender suggested.

Vinicius Junior and Mariano Diaz scored second-half goals as Madrid moved above Barca and into top spot in LaLiga with a 2-0 win on Sunday.

But the performance did little to impress Pique as the Barca defender said the hosts in the first half were "the worst Madrid" he has faced at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Madrid captain Ramos said he would happily win every Clasico playing how his side did.

"Everyone's opinion is respectable. I sign to win all Clasicos by making a first half as bad as he says," he told reporters, via AS.

"The approach was different. In the first half, we left the ball and in the second we decided to go.

"They were not so fresh and we started to generate chances."

With 12 LaLiga games remaining, Madrid hold a one-point lead over their rivals, having lost just two league matches this season.

While pleased with the advantage, Ramos urged his side to remain focused late in the campaign.

"That's right. After the latest results we wanted to claim [first] and what better way than at home and before a great team like Barca," the defender said.

"It was a unique opportunity to depend on ourselves. There are three important points but there is much left.

"We must have our feet on the ground."

Gerard Pique described Real Madrid's first-half performance as the worst he has faced in El Clasico encounters despite Barcelona suffering a 2-0 defeat at Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday.

Madrid leapfrogged Barcelona into top spot in LaLiga after claiming their first Clasico league victory in almost four years, with Vinicius Junior and Mariano Diaz on the scoresheet.

Pique got a touch on Vinicius' opener but was unable to divert it away from his own net and he admitted his side's second-half display against their bitter rivals was not good enough.

But he also fired a broadside at Zinedine Zidane's men, saying Barcelona missed an opportunity to hurt them during a disjointed opening 45 minutes.

"Madrid in the first half was the worst Madrid I've faced at the Bernabeu," Pique told reporters. "We missed a chance to hurt them.

"We have to play better than in the second half, though. We lost balls and they grew in confidence.

"The feeling they [Madrid] transmitted was the worst, and I don't say it as a criticism. We all have problems in our clubs. But I have the feeling that it's an important missed opportunity.

"We are not very well, I say we lost the opportunity to hit the table. We had full control of the game. In the second half, we let them grow based on our losses and they scored a goal, and in the end the second one.

"It is a missed opportunity. In the first half, if we had taken advantage of several chances, we would have left with an advantage on the scoreboard."

The defeat left Barcelona a point behind Madrid with 12 LaLiga matches left to play, and Pique said his side's first Clasico league reverse since April 2016 was a painful one to swallow.

He called for the Blaugrana to raise their game going into the final weeks of the season in order to stay in the title race, and said the return to Camp Nou for their forthcoming clash with Real Sociedad would be a welcome one.

"We have been hit but not sunk," said Pique. "There is room for improvement, and we have enough to win LaLiga if we do things well until the end. But we have to do them well.

"Whenever you lose here, you get hurt because of the importance of the game and the points. If we won, it would have been an important step.

"We have to focus on improving, especially in the second half. Now games come at home, where we are more solvent.

"We will aim to win, game by game, and hope they [Madrid] slip up."

Jordi Alba has been named in the Barcelona squad to face Real Madrid, but head coach Quique Setien is unsure what part the full-back will play in Sunday's Clasico.

Alba injured his right adductor against Getafe on February 15, with Junior Firpo subsequently filling in at left-back against Eibar and Napoli.

However, Alba was on Saturday included in Setien's 18-man selection for the trip to the Santiago Bernabeu.

Setien told a news conference: "The fact is he's very well at the moment, a positive sensation. Clearly you have seen I've put him in the squad.

"The question now is whether he will start the game or not. We're not sure. It depends how he's feeling tomorrow, if he's feeling the same as today.

"He's got another day, but he's looking confident. Let's see whether we play him to start with or not. I haven't decided yet."

Barca boss Setien kept his cards close to his chest, but revealed Alba was not the only player he would be making a late call on, adding: "No, I've got others."

However, Barca should also be boosted by the presence of Gerard Pique in the centre of defence, with the former Manchester United man fit despite suffering an ankle knock against Napoli in midweek.

"I think he's pretty much over the problem he had," Setien said. "There's no major damage. He's over the problem."

Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu has denied the club hired a social media contractor in order to discredit the likes of Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique and Pep Guardiola.

Spanish radio network Cadena SER reported on Monday that an independent social media company was contracted by Barca to boost the public profile of the current board of directors.

The reports also stated the company was tasked with undermining individuals with strong links to the club, including current stars Messi and Pique, former coach Guardiola and midfield icon Xavi.

Following a strong statement of denial on Monday, Bartomeu, while acknowledging Barca had hired I3 Ventures – the company in question – has reiterated the club's stance.

"I want to make clear, for the [Barca] members, and everyone, because I have heard different versions," Bartomeu said at the XIV Vazquez Montalban International Journalism Awards.

"First of all, I have to say that Barcelona haven't hired any service to discredit anyone. Neither players, nor the executives, ex-presidents. That is totally false.

"So we will defend ourselves where necessary regarding this subject, by all means, and in front of anyone who accuses us of doing this. I repeat again, it is false that Barcelona, in any case, has hired no one to discredit anyone."

However, with I3 Ventures connected to one of the accounts named in the reports – Respeto y Deporte (Respect and Sport) – Bartomeu confirmed Barca have ended their relationship with the contractor.

"It is true that at the end of 2017, Barcelona hired a service to monitor different areas of the club in the social media, as the major of the clubs have," he added.

"After the confirmation that one of the accounts linked to one of this company's suppliers have made inappropriate commentaries about people related to our organisation, I have given instructions personally to terminate the contract with this company.

"I want to make something clear. Regarding to the question that "if we have ordered anyone to monitor the social media", the answer is yes and we will still do it. 

"It is the responsibility of this club to know what is going on and what it is being said around the world, always to preserve Barcelona.

"Regarding to the question "If we have ordered to discredit people or institutions through social media" the answer is no and we will persecute everyone who accuses us of it."

Barcelona have denied allegations they hired a company to "damage the image" of people associated with the club by spreading negative messages on social media platforms.

Spanish radio network Cadena SER on Monday published a story claiming Barca had been working with a company to produce online content through unofficial accounts aimed at protecting president Josep Maria Bartomeu and the board.

Pep Guardiola, Xavi, Carles Puyol and former president Joan Laporta were said to have been the subjects of negative posts, while current players Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique were also targeted, according to the report.

But Barca are adamant the claims are false, insisting I3 Ventures – the company they have worked with – is not behind the accounts in question.

A club statement read: "With regards to information published today about the contracting of a company dedicated to creating opinion on social media with a view to damaging the image of third parties related directly or indirectly with the club, Barcelona: 

"1.- Roundly deny any relationship, and furthermore, the contracting of services linked to social media accounts that have broadcast negative or disparaging messages related to any person, entity or organisation that may be, or have been, related to the club. 

"2.- I3 Ventures, a service provider to the club, has no relationship with the accounts mentioned and, if any relationship was to come to light, the club would immediately end their contractual agreement and bring about any necessary legal action to defend their interests. 

"3.- As such, Barcelona confirm that it has services contracted relating to the monitoring of social media with the aim of analysing both positive and negative messages about the organisation itself. 

"4.- With the contracting of these services, the club is attempting to look after and preserve its reputation as well those of people related to the club (sponsors, players, board members, members, supporters' club members...), as far as the protection of this reputation is a fundamental element and responsibility for those who work for the organisation. 

"5.- The club demands an immediate rectification of the information published and reserves the right to exercise legal action against those who continue to implicate the club in such practices."

Page 1 of 2
© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.