MANCHESTER, England (AP) — As Champions League rallying cries go, Gerard Pique struck an unusually downbeat tone for a Barcelona player.
Particularly when speaking in the stadium of Tuesday's opponent: Manchester City. "Maybe they don't fear us as before," Pique said on Monday, "because in the last two years we didn't win the Champions League."
Uncertainty is seeping into the squad that was previously lauded as the greatest-ever, having won the Champions League three times since 2006. And it is showing as the round of 16 begins. Such pessimism, though, seems at odds with Barca's current outlook. The team is already through to the domestic cup final and top of the Spanish standings, albeit only on goal difference in a three-way tussle with Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, while Lionel Messi has 10 goals in 10 games since returning from a two-month injury layoff.
"We are a team with a lot of players who won the World Cup (with Spain), the Champions League, leagues," said Pique, a former defender at City's rival, Manchester United. "We can still be the best, but we have to show the world we can do it. Tomorrow is a great chance."
It is also a chance to shift the attention away from Barca's most damaging crisis in years. Club president Sandro Rosell abruptly quit last month as he fights a lawsuit alleging he misappropriated funds by hiding the real cost of the signing of Brazil striker Neymar with false contracts.
The saga has taken some of the sheen of footballing perfection off a Catalan football institution that is owned by its members and prides itself as being "more than a club." "We know within the club maybe in the last six months there were some things that we could not control (as) the players," Pique said. "All we can do is tomorrow on the pitch show the world we can still be the best."
Their opponents, seen by some pundits as a "Mini-Barcelona," are on a turbo-charged mission — funded by Abu Dhabi — to become a global force. Not only is City's board room populated by former Camp Nou executives, but the team attempts to play with similar stylish, short-passing moves.
"City is one of the greatest teams in the world right now," coach Gerardo Martino said through a translator. "They are very similar to us, maybe they are a bit more direct but they have good possession ... if we don't have the ball it's just pointless to turn up."
Perhaps, that's not what the visiting fans want to hear. Losing over two legs would be hard for Martino to take, given the four-time European champions are taking on a team in its first knockout phase, and is third in the Premier League.
"For the last six seasons, Barcelona has made it to the semifinals and the fans are used to that," Martino said. "It would be difficult to understand that we didn't go through."
Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris