Exclusive interview: Gerard Pique on El Clasico, Luis Suarez and Barcelona

Cristiano Ronaldo won the Ballon d'Or in January, and since then his form has only gone even further off the scale. Thus he's currently the world's No. 1 player by a still greater distance.

Just as a matter of interest, his record in Clasicos is: played 21, won five, drawn six ... lost 10.

His former Manchester United teammate, Gerard Pique, on the other hand, can boast a ridiculously good stat. Since returning to Barcelona, the 27-year-old World Cup-winning defender has lost only four of his 20 matches against Madrid. He's won 11 and drawn five.

It appears he's the Clasico specialist.

Nevertheless, it has become fashionable not to recognise that after a tremendously debilitating hip fracture last season, and a faulty World Cup, Pique's fitness, athleticism and form are all on the rise. It's equally en vogue to put his every minor error under the microscope, to attribute opposition chances that stem from teammates' poor positional decisions to him -- it feels like open season.

"C'est la vie," says the Catalan.

It's the price one pays for being high-profile, for having played to the highest standard for years and then relaxed a little; it's the price of a personality who drives his competitive edge to reassert himself for club and country. And that gets him into the occasional situation on and off the pitch that he'd have done well to avoid.

In anticipation of the Clasico, his favourite day of the footballing year, he talks to ESPN FC about all of it: Madrid, Luis Suarez, Cristiano Ronaldo, his critics and the "Golden Manager" online football game he designed, which now employs 30 people during Spain's economic crisis.

But first, the Clasico itself.

ESPN FC: The highest-profile new boy is Luis Suarez. How will the Clasico compare to what he's experienced in the Premier League?

Pique: In England, there are big games but nothing like the Clasico. Manchester United versus Liverpool is a really great match, probably the best over there. But Barcelona-Madrid is different to any other game in the world. This country just comes to a stop. There's such pressure. Everyone's talking about it for weeks before it happens and then for a week after it's played. It's brilliant that Suarez is free to play just when this match arrives. I don't know what he's expecting but he'll enjoy it.

ESPN FC: When it was Pep Guardiola versus Jose Mourinho, this match was immensely controversial. Did you enjoy that?

Pique: To be honest, I did. I think it's possible that [Madrid] crossed the line ... but we probably crossed it, too. It's just a game. If you know how to control your emotions then everything which happens on the pitch can stay on the pitch. It's vital to maintain your relationships because we all get on together for the national team. However, I love the competition. The historic rivalry. Playing Clasicos is exciting.

ESPN FC: Can you remember a time when the teams have had so many great strikers?

Pique: I think we are talking about the best ever. There was a time when Barcelona had [Brazilian] Ronaldo and Madrid had Raul, both at their peak, but even then you were talking about just a couple of super-talented strikers. To have three of those each at this level [speaking before Gareth Bale's injury] is amazing.

ESPN FC: What have the last few months been like for Suarez and the squad during his ban?

Pique: When he arrived, he'd not trained and wasn't playing -- he was "dead" after 10 minutes of training and I'd be like, "What's happened to you, man?!" But after two or three weeks he was fit and now he's really in shape. He showed that with his goals against Oman. But in training he's unbelievable. Luis has this thing ... let me put it like this: there'll be two or three rebounds off players when he dribbles in the box and suddenly the ball is still at his feet and he scores. He creates goals from absolutely nothing. This is a different style of player from what we have here. Guys like [Andres] Iniesta and Xavi are really sweet on the ball. You enjoy watching them. With Luis it's the opposite style -- he's fighting, he's working, but finally he scores the goal. Always.

ESPN FC: Football dressing rooms usually have a wicked sense of humour. Has he been teased?

Pique: Oh, yes! When we are jockeying for the ball, for example today in a training drill when I had to defend a cross and he had to attack it, I'll give it: "Hey! Don't bite me!" He just smiles. Luis knows it's not right to bite in a football match. It's happened, he apologised, he has to accept it and move on. In training he's so competitive, though. He gets a kick and he won't go down. Never. He just continues trying to score even if you kick him or pull his shirt.

ESPN FC: Not quite the reputation he had in England.

Pique: That's not surprising to me. In England if you "fall" one time then you carry that reputation. He's a fair player. All I can say is that in training he'll never go to the deck, he's always fighting to get a goal even if you foul him.

ESPN FC: Were you worried about his baggage when he signed?

Pique: I was really happy! I don't care if he bit someone in the past. He knows that is not the way and he's promised not to do it again. As a player, he's in the top three or four in the world so I'm really happy to have him in my team.

ESPN FC: He's reminiscent of Samuel Eto'o at his best with Barcelona?

Pique: Yes, because he pressures the defenders a lot, making it hard for them. If you are trying to find a good pass and you have this striker snapping at you all the time ... He tries to recuperate the ball as quickly as he can and, at the same time, he gives you a lot of goals. A really good signing.

ESPN FC: What about Madrid's attackers? Karim Benzema and Ronaldo are on terrific form right now. How do you play them?

Pique: They are really quick and powerful. If you are not alert they can destroy you. They really need Benzema because he drops to receive the ball and distribute it to Cristiano and Bale. Above all we must be really careful when we have possession. That moment you lose the ball you must be in the right position because if not they'll break, run powerfully, use the long ball and it's very difficult to catch them.

ESPN FC: Barcelona have only lost five of the last 17 Clasicos in Madrid, winning eight. In sports psychology terms, is it easier avoiding the pressure of the home game?

Pique: Maybe you are right. Perhaps [Madrid] prefer to play in the Camp Nou ... We like the away Clasicos and we get a lot of good results at the Bernabeu. The crowds here in Spain are not the same as in England, where they are very loud throughout the whole match and it makes a big difference to you ... even if you are losing. Here they show you their frustration, which isn't very helpful. I know they are just telling you what they want to see. That's perhaps why it's better to play away from home. If you are losing 1-0 you don't feel the same pressure.

ESPN FC: How are you coping with the fact that manager Luis Enrique is rotating you more than you are used to?

Pique: Nobody wants that. All I can do is show the coach that I don't need it, that I can play well every game. However, I like a challenge. There's a huge amount of competition at centre-back: [Marc] Bartra, [Jeremy] Mathieu, [Javier Mascherano], [Thomas] Vermaelen. I'm sure it will improve me.

ESPN FC: It's a testing moment for you.

Pique: I've had a really good career. I had a great time at Manchester United, except that Rio [Ferdinand] and [Nemanja] Vidic never got injured, never got a damn red card! But right now I am facing a big challenge, yes. However, I'm happy with my performances this season, despite the fact that some people are saying, "Pique isn't fit, he's not playing well." The problem, I think, is that people assume I'm not fit because I'm on the bench so much. After the World Cup I admitted that perhaps I'd not been on my peak form. But I worked really hard from preseason training onwards and I'm happy with my form. I left a lot of friends in Manchester and was happy there. However, I've always said that I want to retire at the Camp Nou and right now I've no thought of leaving.

ESPN FC: Have Barcelona finally rediscovered their identity under Luis Enrique?

Pique: For the first four years after I returned, we played the best football I can remember. Now it's a bit more difficult because we haven't played as well. It's really difficult to keep that level. But with Luis Enrique we've changed the mentality and we are pressing really high again. The first two, three seconds when the opposition take the ball off us they have to suffer a lot because our strikers really press them. This helps the back four, in particular. It's not the same when the other team have time to think so that they can put a good ball in behind us. It's what happened the last couple of years. Now when we press as a team it's much easier for the defenders.

ESPN FC: So for all the talk about the quality in the teams, it's pressing that really counts?

Pique: Obviously when you win titles the stars are the strikers, then when you don't win a title it's because of the defenders, not the strikers! Football works like this!

ESPN FC: This is your first season since your partner in crime, Carles Puyol, retired. You must miss playing with him.

Pique: The whole team misses him. He was the captain for a lot of years. One of the most important players in the history of the club, and to not have him is difficult. But "Puyi" has stayed at the club to help [director of football Andoni Zubizarreta]. I see Puyi every two or three days. He watches training. I find it helpful to speak to him.

ESPN FC: You are a businessman now, employing more than 30 people via the "Golden Manager" online football game that you created and designed. Is it important for you to have diverse interests outside football?

Pique: When I moved here I had a great relationship with Puyol, who had been 100 percent football -- no life, just football 24 hours per day. I always had a lot on my mind -- ideas like "Golden Manager." We became great friends and took a lot from each other's personalities. It's essential to have equilibrium in your life. After a bad game, for example, you're stuck at home just thinking about your mistakes, and that's not good for you. "Golden Manager" now has 4 million people playing it, it's a year and a half old and in November it'll launch for mobiles and tablets rather than PC. I'm in my office twice or three times a week putting time into the company.

ESPN FC: OK, then, who do you put in your "Golden Manager" starting XI? No evasiveness. Name names!

Pique: Yes, I have Cristiano! It doesn't matter if he plays for Madrid! If my players give me wins and good results, that's all that counts. Leo [Messi] is in, obviously. I'd pick Leo and Cristiano for sure. I had [Wayne] Rooney in the team but now I have Luis Suarez. So Rooney is on the bench. He'll play sometimes; I make rotations.

ESPN FC: Cesc Fabregas, as a close friend, is another loss for you. But he's flying at Chelsea.

Pique: He loves London and he's playing well. I don't know if he loves Mourinho but he must do because he's playing every game! He hates missing playing time, and here at Barcelona it was difficult for him. It was one of the toughest decisions of his life to leave for a second time, but Arsenal told him, "We don't need you," and now it's obvious he's made the right choice.