Gerard Pique is Barcelona's Beckenbauer

Sir Alex Ferguson, Pique's former manager at Manchester United, wrote the young Spaniard a letter upon his return to Barca stating he knew he would make it to the top.

I am from Manchester, but spend most of my time in Barcelona. Gerard Pique is from Barcelona and until two years ago spent most of his time in Manchester. As a football journalist, our paths quickly crossed. We shared some mutual friends and saw each other socially several times.
He would ask me about Manchester United (despite him being an employee) and I'd ask about Barcelona (despite me watching them 30 times a season more than him).
He's a bright, talented lad and was highly regarded at Old Trafford, where he moved as a 16-year-old in 2004. After three years of learning, he felt he was ready for the first team by 2007.
There was a major problem: the immovable objects of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.
Pique was loaned to Real Zaragoza in Spain's Primera Liga, where he thrived. They wanted to keep him and bid ?10 million (Dh50m) for him, but United rated him so highly that they rejected it.
In November 2007, I saw him start for United against Bolton Wanderers away. It did not go well and Pique was at fault for the game's only goal. Looking back, any future career at Old Trafford died a little that day. Two months later, I went out with him in Manchester. He was barely recognised.
"What's happening?" he asked. He wanted to know what the people were saying about him. I told him his Bolton performance was a mark against him, but that he'd impressed - and scored - against Roma away in the Champions League a month earlier.
He knew as much. Five months later he returned to Barca, his hometown club, for a ?4m fee. He was ready for first-team football and didn't want to be United's third or fourth-choice central defender. He'd been a patient learner, but with opportunities limited to 14 starts and nine substitute appearances, he decided to put himself first.
In an unusual move, Sir Alex Ferguson wrote him a letter praising his technical excellence and outlining that he thought he would still become a top-level defender. "We were disappointed to lose him, but we understood at the time that his family's desire was to go back to Barcelona," the United manager said.
Pique returned this regard and he still speaks well of his time in the north of England, if not of the food and the climate.
Less than three years after that game at the Reebok Stadium against Bolton, Pique is considered one of the finest central defenders on the planet.
He settled immediately under Pep Guardiola, the coach at Barca, and won the treble of Primera Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League in his first season.
Oh, what irony to beat United in the Champions League final - especially as some United coaches considered him too cumbersome on the turn, the weak link to be exploited by Cristiano Ronaldo.
It didn't quite work out like that and it has been non-stop success ever since for Pique. A World Cup winner with Spain in the summer, Pique has won every prize in football apart from the European Championships. He will be a favourite to achieve that with Spain in 2012.
Pique has become so important to Barca that they miss him when he's not there. On Saturday against Villarreal, the Catalans' defence was unnerved several times by the front duo of Nilmar and Giuseppe Rossi.
Barca missed not just Pique the defender, but Pique the attacker. Many of their forward forays start when the giant carries the ball forward.
In Carles Puyol, his experienced defensive partner, Pique has the perfect foil; the shorter, rougher and unkempt warrior to Pique's elegant, athletic poise. Not for nothing do Barca fans call him Piquebauer, likening his style to that of the legendary World Cup winning German defender Franz Beckenbauer.