BARCELONA, (Spain): Barcelona's preparations for the Champions League clash with Man-chester City have been thrown into turmoil with the coach Luis Enrique refusing to defend Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique's late-night visit to a casino less than 48 hours before the game tonight (Tuesday).
Enrique, the former Barcelona and Spain midfielder who replaced -Gerardo Martino as Barca coach at the end of last season, has been forced to withstand a barrage of criticism over his methods at the Nou Camp this campaign, with reports in the Spanish media suggesting that the 44-year-old's relationship with Messi has become strained.
With photographs emerging yesterday (Monday) of Messi, Pique, and Chelsea's former Barcelona midfielder Cesc Fabregas, emerging from Casino de Barcelona around midnight on Sunday, Enrique reacted with exasperation when asked by an English journalist at his pre-match press conference whether he had been happy that his players had been out at midnight, just 10 hours before the squad flew to Manchester for their important tie.
"This guy must work for one of the Spanish channels," Enrique said. "What did the players [Pique and Messi] say?" When told that Pique had said, "It is my private life, we just had a nice time there," Enrique raised his eyebrows, shrugged his shoulders and responded by saying, "I concentrate on football, not stuff outside it. I am not interested."
Messi and Pique's night out has been dismissed as nothing of concern in Spain, with sources close to Messi insisting to the Catalan media that the 27-year-old merely dined with Pique and Fabregas - who has an apartment close by - and did not play the tables inside the casino.
With Barcelona's flight landing in Manchester a mere 13 hours after the two players had been photographed outside the casino, the incident provided an unwanted distraction for Enrique, whose prickly relationship with the Barcelona media was borne out during his press conference at the Etihad Stadium.
Despite forging a reputation as a Barcelona great during an eight-year playing spell at the Nou Camp, following a transfer from Real Madrid, Enrique has struggled to silence his critics in the city's influential media.
His relationship with Messi has also been scrutinised, with the four-time Ballon d'Or winner controversially missing training last month after being dropped to the substitutes' bench for the 1-0 defeat against David Moyes's Real Sociedad.
When asked whether there was truth in claims that he had not spoken to his players after the 1-0 defeat against Malaga at the weekend, which ended Barcelona's 11-game -winning run, Enrique was non-committal.
"That is a very nice, friendly question," Enrique said. "I always talk about and analyse everything I need to in football. I don't like to have any bad intentions and do my job in the best spirit I can. My relationship with the players is the same as it has always been.
"Look, I would take losing one game and winning the next 12. The morale is fine. No one is too down. After a defeat, you want the chance to compete once again in a place like this, in a fantastic stadium against an opponent that is one of the favourites to win the trophy. That is all the motivation you need.
"This is just the environment we find ourselves in. It is the fans, the surroundings of the club, ex-players, it is difficult to evaluate that.
"It is the surroundings of the club in general. People knew me from when I was a player at the club, but you sometimes need extra things at this club to decorate the tree of life. I just need to concentrate on football. Everyone has their own strategy."
Having brushed off the questions over his visit to the casino, Pique, the Spain centre-half, insisted that relations between the squad and Enrique were not a concern.
"There are no problems between ourselves and the manager," Pique said. "We get on fine, the relationship is good and we have just had 11 straight wins. When you lose a game, you always get doubts arising, even when you win 11 on the trot.
"It [Malaga] is just one more defeat, it is behind us now and we know what we have to do. We just need to show people that the team is as it was three days ago.
"The defeat is not the worst we have experienced. We are used to going through good and bad moments. Maybe two or three months ago, things weren't so good."
The Spain international added: "One defeat cannot make us doubt ourselves, but we won lots of games, so we just have to do our job here."
Barcelona claimed a 4-1 aggregate victory against City at the same stage of the tournament last season before being eliminated by Atletico Madrid in the quarter-finals.
Although he admitted that City would pose a sterner challenge than last season, Pique insisted that Barcelona could claim a fifth European Cup this year.
"Normally in seasons, you have ups and downs, but we compete for the title every year," Pique said. "We can still win three trophies, but while we can play some games better than others, we have shown very good form.
"City had really bad luck in the draw last year because they played against us and the years before, they had a difficult group stage.
"I am sure they will be fighting for this competition in the next years, but we are looking to beat them to go on to the quarter-finals."