27th June 2016. By Edward Stratmann. 
For almost a year now, Gerard Pique has been a heavily derided figure by many fans of the Spanish national team, with a section of supporters dedicating themselves to incessantly booing, jeering and whistling at him. This is, of course, due to their belief that the Barcelona stopper holds anti-Real Madrid and pro-Catalan independence views.

Pique's outstanding performances against the Czech Republic and Turkey to start the tournament, with the highpoint being the dramatic late winner he scored against the Czechs, had, however, helped unite the fans and managed to stem the negative treatment directed towards him.

When speaking prior to Spain's final group game with Croatia, Pique noted how pleased he was the situation had improved, saying: "I take that very happily. It is better to be applauded than whistled. The only way to turn the situation around is my performance on the pitch.

"I had the good fortune to score an important goal and I am also in very good form at the moment. The fans have realised that this is football, not a patriotism contest."

The harmony unfortunately wouldn't last long, for when Spain's anthem was blasting out in Bordeaux ahead of the Croatia game, many accused Pique of making a rude gesture as the camera rolled past. Yet another barrage of criticism came his way, but a frustrated Pique, doused the flames quickly by clarifying the scenario.

"I am cracking my knuckles during the anthem. We should not look for controversies where there are none and try to win the Euros all together," he insisted.

"These controversies bring us nowhere. It is a country in which things around Barca and Madrid divide a lot, but we must be together and united.

"It is a stupid controversy."

The match itself served as a rude awakening for the Spanish too, with Croatia winning an enthralling contest 2-1. While many of his colleagues performed below their best, Pique stood up and showed his professionalism and class, putting in a hugely accomplished display at the back. He was a rock at the back for the La Roja, which was especially important considering his defensive partner, Sergio Ramos, had an absolute shocker. Indeed, the ostensibly flawless clinic put on by Pique only served to enhance his reputation as one of the best centre-backs in world football.

Exuding calmness and composure throughout, the Barcelona star remained unfazed by anything Croatia threw at him. His ability to read the game and make decisions with the utmost clarity and authority ensured Ante Cacic's men found little joy when attacking his areas of operation.

For the most part, he predominantly had to deal with Barca teammate Ivan Rakitic and Nikola Kalinic, Croatia's number 10 and centre forward respectively, and he did so with uncompromising effect.

Although Kalinic scored, there was little Pique could do to prevent it, in a match where he tracked the pair diligently and with intelligence. His masterful positional sense shone through as ever, which always provides a brilliant platform for him to nullify his adversaries. Combine this with his innate capacity to time his tackles with impeccable precision and judgement, when to hold his ground or step out and his tremendous aerially prowess and it's easy to see why the talented duo struggled against him.

The fact the extraordinarily gifted Rakitic only completed seven of his 13 attempted passes and Kalinic just 10 of 14 was by and large due to his tremendous defensive effort. Moreover, his three tackles, three interceptions, three clearances and one blocked shot further accentuated his defensive contribution.

By passing the ball out from the back with customary elegance and confidence, Pique played an integral role in instigating his side's possession phases too. Despite the unsatisfactory result and inherent criticism that followed, Pique left the field with his on-field reputation as strong as ever.

While he still divides opinion among a certain section of La Furia Roja fans for non footballing reasons, the leadership and experience he brings to Vicente Del Bosque's outfit is absolutely crucial to Spain's chances of winning the summer showpiece.

With familiar foes Italy up next, their defensive genius will undoubtedly be a key figure against Antonio Conte's well drilled side too - just as he's already been over the course of the tournament.

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