Friday 23 February 2018

New Barca boss has Messi seal of approval

Gerardo Martino
Gerardo Martino

Pete Jensen

When new Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino played his last game for Argentinian side Newell's Old Boys in 1996, a nine-year-old called Lionel Messi stole the show.

Barcelona's new coach had appeared more than 400 times for Newell's and a huge crowd had turned out to pay tribute to him, but the club also sent out their boys team, who had won their league that season, and among their number a young Messi had the crowd chanting "Maradona! Maradona!" as he juggled the ball in the centre circle.

Messi has become the Barcelona talisman and the retiring player Martino is now his coach. It has been Martino's Messi connection that has been the main focus as Barcelona's decision to entrust a coach yet to have put down a training cone on European soil in charge of the team sinks in.

Martino is Barcelona's fourth Argentinian coach, after Helenio Herrera, Roque Olsen and Cesar Luis Menotti. He arrives with all the usual doubts that cloud a European debutant's first season, but more importantly he comes with Messi's blessing.

Barcelona's No 10 described the decision as a "nice surprise" while others suggested the forward had been kingmaker as Barça overlooked their former player Luis Enrique, despite current captain Carles Puyol being understood to have favoured the recently appointed Celta Vigo coach.

So, did Messi pick the manager? Probably not – although the fact that Barcelona knew the appointment would delight him – and his dad Jorge, who was Martino's biggest fan – will have done the 50-year-old coach's case no harm. But it was more likely to have been the wisdom of old heads such as Marcelo Bielsa and Jorge Valdano that made up kingmaker Andoni Zubizarreta 's mind.

Barcelona's sporting director consulted both men at a lunch in Bilbao in February as the club began working on an emergency plan if then coach Tito Vilanova was told that his battle with cancer prevented him from continuing – as has come to pass – and a new manager had to be found at short notice.

Both Bielsa – who managed Martino at Newell's – and Valdano gave glowing references. Southampton coach Mauricio Pochettino is another who cannot speak highly enough of the man who last season won the league with Newell's and took them to the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores as well as taking Paraguay beyond the group stages at the South Africa World Cup and then to the final of the Copa America.

"He has the Barça philosophy and the personality to manage that dressing-room," said Pochettino, another Newell's old boy himself.

Barcelona are understood to have no doubts that Martino will hit the ground running in Spain. When they were sensitively preparing for the worst with coach Vilanova, who had further surgery yesterday as part of his ongoing cancer treatment, they also considered Manuel Pellegrini.

Ultimately Pellegrini agreed to move to Manchester City, but the Chilean remains the perfect role model for Martino. Having won two leagues in Argentina Pellegrini adapted quickly to Europe and had relative success with Villarreal and Malaga.

With Messi at his disposal even more will be expected of Martino. "I hope to have him here one day," he said in a recent interview at Newell's – in reference to Messi's insistence that he will go back to his old club before he retires. Fate has thrown them together ahead of time.

Martino will not take charge of tonight's friendly with Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich, but is expected to arrive in Barcelona later in the week.

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