Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino and his Atletico Madrid counterpart Diego Simeone clashed as rival players in their native Argentina and there will be no quarter given when they meet in the last eight of the Champions League on Tuesday.
Simeone was not yet 18 when he faced Martino, nearly 10 years his senior, in a league match between Velez Sarsfield and Newell’s Old Boys in January 1988, when Martino was sent off for a challenge on fellow midfielder Simeone, who was himself dismissed 10 minutes later. “There was an incident in the middle of the pitch,” Simeone recalled in an interview with Argentine television. “He reacted to something, I exaggerated a bit and they ended up sending him off,” added the 43-year-old, said to play “with a knife between his teeth”.
Almost three decades later and the older and wiser Martino and Simeone are in charge of two Spanish teams with a genuine chance of achieving a rare double of Champions League and La Liga titles.
Atletico are a point clear of Barca at the top of Spain’s domestic league with seven games left and their final match of the campaign is another trip to Barca’s daunting Nou Camp arena in May. They have already played each other three times this term, with very little to choose between the sides. Barca pipped Atletico to the season-opening Spanish Super Cup when Neymar’s goal in a 1-1 first-leg draw in Madrid was enough for Barca after the second leg ended 0-0. Their La Liga game at the Calderon in January also finished goalless.
Barca warmed up for Tuesday’s last eight, first leg with a laboured 1-0 win at city rivals Espanyol on Saturday thanks to a Lionel Messi penalty, while Diego Costa and Koke scored for Atletico in a 2-1 comeback win at Athletic Bilbao.
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Simeone’s men will need to demonstrate the same intensity they showed at the San Mames if they are to get the better of a Barca side buoyed by this month’s 4-3 win at Real Madrid.
Messi, whose season was disrupted by a two-month injury layoff either side of the New Year, appears to be coming into top form at exactly the right time, while playmaker Andres Iniesta is also looking close to his scintillating best. Messi has scored 20 goals in 19 matches against Atletico, including three hat-tricks.
Barca playmaker Xavi said he would have preferred not to meet another Spanish team in Europe and praised Simeone for the way he has transformed Atletico since the end of 2011.
“Atletico Madrid know us very well,” Xavi said in an interview published on Atletico’s website (www.clubatleticodemadrid.com) on Sunday. “Simeone has instilled an extraordinary winning mentality in the team and they have absolute faith in what they are doing,” added the Spain international.
“It will be a very close tie, with few scoring chances due to the way Atletico play. It is never fun playing them. They don’t allow you any space, they cover our creative areas very well.”
The goals of Atletico’s Brazil-born forward Costa have underpinned the team’s success this season and he notched his 25th of the La Liga campaign at Bilbao, three behind top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid and two ahead of Messi.
“Costa is a lad who is improving day by day, he has enormous physical strength,” Simeone said. “The way the team plays is a consequence of what he can give us and he feels comfortable in the side.”