FC Barcelonas swift decision to replace Tito Vilanova with Gerardo Martino is a bold move not without risk but should at least allow the players to refocus on football after the unwelcome distractions of recent months.
The Spanish champions announced on Friday that Vilanova,44,was unable to continue because of the demands of his cancer treatment and the club said on Tuesday they had hired 50-year-old Argentine Martino,a former Newells Old Boys coach in his native Rosario,on a two-year contract.
Barcas Argentina forward Lionel Messi is also from Rosario and the 26-year-old World Player of the Year,increasingly influential thanks to his phenomenal goalscoring record in recent years,reportedly had a hand in Martinos appointment.
Messi spoke glowingly of Martino,better known in Argentina by the nickname Tata.
I like Tata Martino, Messi said recently. He is a great coach, adding that his teams play well and we all respect him.
The silver-haired former Newells player is a self-confessed admirer of Barcas most successful coach,Pep Guardiola,who handed the reins to his friend Vilanova at the end of the 2011-12 season and is now at Bayern Munich.
Martinos football philosophy,rooted in ball possession and relying on players with outstanding technical ability,is considered a snug fit with Barcas playing style.
My priority is possession, Martino said in an interview in May 2012,according to Barcas website.
Attack,get a lot of players in the opposition half,take risks, he added.
Despite having no experience coaching a European club,the 50-year-old Martino received backing from Barcelona star Lionel Messi before the clubs sporting director traveled to Buenos Aires to negotiate the deal.
Vilanovas debut season after succeeding Guardiola was a disappointment by Barcas high standards even though they wrested the La Liga title back from arch rivals Real Madrid with a record-equalling points haul.
Towards the end of the campaign,there was a sense that few players had lost their focus because of Vilanovas illness.
He was away in New York having treatment for two months in February and March and although he was back on the bench for the end of the season Barcas Champions League campaign was brutally cut short by Bayern Munich.
The players seemed spent and barely put up a fight against the aggressive Bundesliga side in the two-legged semi-final and their 7-0 aggregate reverse was the clubs worst in Europe by some distance.
preparations take a hit
In recent weeks as Real began to regroup for next season under new coach Carlo Ancelotti,Barcas preparations were again overshadowed by the issue of Vilanovas health.
Guardiola,the clubs most successful coach,accused the Barca board of using Vilanovas illness to damage him and the issue dominated media coverage for several days.
When it became clear Vilanova could not continue,president Sandro Rosell and sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta knew they had to move rapidly to fill the gap with the new La Liga season less than a month away.
unknown in Europe
Luis Enrique,a former Barca player who has taken charge at Celta Vigo,was said to be in the running but they opted instead for Martino,a relative unknown in Europe but who won plaudits for taking Paraguay to the last eight of the 2010 World Cup. Martinos link to Messi will help him settle and win the confidence of the other players,while in new signing Neymar he has one of the hottest properties in the game.
With Real having reinforced their squad with astute purchases and apparently recovering quickly from the turbulence of the Jose Mourinho years,Barca will have to be at the top of their game if they are to defend their La Liga title.
It is the Champions League that counts,however,and one of Martinos first jobs will be to make sure Barca find the centre back they need to strengthen the defence that let them down badly at times last season.
When the action starts,maintaining Barcas entertaining,attacking style while making sure the players are not bullied out of a match like they were against Bayern is likely to be his main challenge.
I think he will fit in with our model, Barcas Spain midfielder Andres Iniesta told Marca on Tuesday. Whatever the club decides is best for Barca.
The martino files
Born on November 20,1962 in Rosario,Martino was a midfielder and team captain with Newell’s Old Boys where he spent the bulk of his career.
Martino,capped only once by Argentina,spent most of his career at Newell’s as a midfielder,playing a record 509 matches and winning three league titles,two under his mentor Marcelo Bielsa.
He came through the junior ranks and stayed on as a professional for a decade before trying his hand in Spain at Tenerife,a short-lived experience.
Nicknamed Tata (grandad),he returned to Rosario and had a season at Lanus in Buenos Aires,then saw out his career with brief stints back at Newell’s and,Barcelona of Ecuador.
Began coaching in the Argentine lower leagues before moving to Paraguay where he made his name,winning four league titles in six years,three with Libertad and one with Cerro Porteno.
His club success in Paraguay earned him the appointment as coach of the country’s national team in 2006. His side reached the 2010 World Cup,their fourth finals in a row,and qualified for the last eight for the first time,losing 1-0 to eventual champions Spain.
Martino steered Paraguay to the Copa America final in 2011 but then quit to return to Newell’s,where there is a stand named after him at the Marcelo Bielsa ground.
Martino is the fourth Argentine to take charge at Barcelona after Helenio Herrera (1958),Roque Olsen (1965) and Cesar Luis Menotti in 1983.