Spain vs Albania - Pique focused on beating Albania after turbulent week

Posted Thursday, October 05, 2017 by PA

Spain will attempt to put off-field issues aside and take another significant step towards World Cup qualification on Friday when they host Albania in Alicante.

The 2010 world champions are within touching distance of securing top spot in Group G, lying three points ahead of second-placed Italy heading into their final two qualifiers and boasting a superior goal difference over the Azzurri.

However, the build-up to La Roja's matches against Albania and Israel has been overshadowed by this week's events in Catalonia, where hundreds of people were injured in clashes with police in Barcelona as they voted in an independence referendum which had been declared illegal by the Spanish government.

The outcome of the referendum, which saw around 90 per cent of those who voted back Catalonia's bid to become an independent republic, could have far-reaching implications for the whole of Spain - including sport.

Julen Lopetegui's national team has already been affected by the fall-out, with the future of experienced centre-back Gerard Pique, a vocal supporter of Catalan independence and one of a number of Barcelona players in the national squad, proving a hot - and distracting - topic all week.

The 30-year-old, who admitted on Sunday night he would quit La Roja if his presence became a problem, was whistled and jeered by spectators at a public training session in Madrid on Monday, and it remains to be seen what the reaction of fans at the Jose Rico Perez stadium will be on Friday.

Pique was keen to reach out to those who have criticised him during a midweek press conference, where he also re-iterated his commitment to playing for Spain.

He said in quotes reported by the Spanish press: "My team-mates don't deserve to go through this experience. That's why I'm sitting here now; instead of two of my team-mates coming out and being inundated with questions about me, I preferred to come out myself and answer everything that has to be answered.

"At the end of the day, being on the end of insults and whistles isn't pleasant for anyone. But I think that it's a challenge for me and I'm here to try and turn it round."

He added: '"No-one can doubt my commitment to the Spain team. I've been coming here for 15 years; I feel proud to be in the Spanish national team.

"To leave now would give reason to those who whistle and make them happy, but I don't think that they are the majority in Spain. I won't give them that luxury because I want to turn this around and my team-mates are also in favour of me staying."

Although questions about Friday's game were few and far between, Pique still found time to warn his team-mates of the threat posed by Albania.

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

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

Their coach Christian Panucci, the former Italy defender, told a press conference: "The matches against Spain and Italy are very important for the image of Albania.

"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."

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