Football

Pique focused on Albania task

Spain defender puts aside referendum controversy and warns of threat posed by Panucci's underdogs

GROUP G
SPAIN ALBANIA

They have a three-point lead over second-placed Italy and a healthy 17-goal advantage on the Azzurri in the goal difference column.

A win over third-placed Albania in Alicante in their Group G qualifier tomorrow morning (Singapore time) will seal Spain's ticket to next year's World Cup Finals in Russia.

The run-up to the game has been marked by the controversy over Barcelona defender Gerard Pique's views on the recent Catalan independence referendum and the insults he received while training at the team's headquarters in Las Rozas, outside Madrid on Monday.

The 30-year-old clarified his position on Wednesday regarding playing for the Spain national team and his pro-Catalonia independence views and still found time to warn his teammates of the threat posed by Albania, who are managed by former Italy defender Christian Panucci.

He said: "They are a very complicated team, as they showed in qualifying for the last European Championship.

"They keep things tight very well at the back and can really damage you on the counter.

"It's been hard work getting to a situation where by beating Albania, we'll be virtually qualified. So I think we have to focus on that and try to get the three points."

Spain coach Julen Lopetegui has come to the defence of Pique, whom he described as "excellent" and "committed".

"Pique is not a problem for the national team," Lopetegui told Cadena Ser radio.

"He is an excellent footballer and a solution."

Lopetegui also denied an AS report that Pique, who has scored five goals in 91 appearances for Spain since making his senior debut in February 2009, could leave the national team before the game against Albania.

"Of course he will be with us," he said. "Gerard is fine, he is calm. He has always given his maximum when he is here.

VERY COMMITTED

"He is judged for his political views but he is very committed, he has always pleasantly surprised us."

Like Lopetegui, Spain midfielder Thiago Alcantara believes Pique is fully committed to La Roja.

"We have seen him show the same commitment as always," said Bayern Munich's Alcantara.

"He has the same energy and the same joy that he always has. We all only want to come to play football and win games with Spain.

"We are disappointed not to be able to talk and focus on the upcoming games against Albania and Israel - we must focus on discussing the game and nothing else.

"We are not here to discuss personal views or political opinions, all that is important here is qualifying for the World Cup."

Pique has also hit out at the "lies" surrounding his relationship with fellow defender Sergio Ramos and revealed that the duo are going into business together.

After Pique's pro-independence comments, reports in Spain suggested that his friendship with Real Madrid star Ramos was irrevocably damaged.

"Any talk that we don't get along is a big lie," Pique said.

"We are even going to be partners in a business that I asked him to get involved with.

"Everything is okay, my relationship with him is phenomenal. It is easy to say things, but we are very close and there is no problem between us."

Albania, who are third in Group G but six points behind Italy, are determined to give Spain no helping hand, however.

"The matches against Spain and Italy are very important for the image of Albania," said Panucci.

"These two teams are stronger than us, but football tells us that even when you're faced with the best, you can do something important.

"I want 11 lions on the pitch. We will try to get a result." - WIRE SERVICES

OTHER GROUP G FIXTURES

  • Italy v Macedonia
  • Liechtenstein v Israel
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