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Old Argentina foes face off in Spain

Simeone, Martino meet again, 26 years later

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Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone (left).

VADIM GHIRDA / THE ASSOCIATE PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone (left).

In early 1988, long before becoming notorious for getting David Beckham sent off in a World Cup knockout match, Velez Sarsfield midfielder Diego Simeone managed to trick the referee into ejecting Newell's Old Boys opponent Gerardo Martino during an Argentine Primera Division encounter.

This weekend, not quite 26 years since the confrontation, the two will once again go up against each other, and just like during their playing days the crafty, devious Simeone will be looking to pull one over the thoughtful, creative Martino.

Now in charge of Atletico Madrid -- the club with which he won a Spanish league and cup double in 1996 -- Simeone has his Mattress-makers (the club nickname is derived from the striped pattern of their shirts, which is similar to that of old, Spanish mattresses) flying high atop La Liga, level on points with Barcelona and trailing the Catalans only on goal-difference.

Barcelona, incidentally, are managed by Martino, who will by now have come to realize it is Atletico, and not traditional rivals Real Madrid, that will most likely pose the biggest challenge to the club's title defence through the second half of the season.

Today's clash between the co-leaders (1 p.m., beIN Sport Play) will be the first since an August Super Cup series that ended 1-1 but saw Barcelona prevail on away goals, and over the 90 minutes at Estadio Vicente Calderon both sides will no doubt take on the characteristics of their managers as they battle for an advantage in the Spanish capital.

For Atletico, that means playing the direct, high-intensity style of football that has become their trademark under Simeone.

The 43-year-old will deploy a 4-4-2 formation unusually comfortable without possession and incredibly capable of striking quickly on the counter-attack. Diego Costa will be the primary threat of goal, but Atletico will also be expecting a conniving, physical element from the Brazil-born striker who once said he thought he "had to kill" every opponent he faced.

In other words, a 25-year-old, and rather more offensively-gifted, version of his manager.

"The sky is the limit for Diego Costa," Simeone remarked back in October.

"If they extended the voting for the Ballon d'Or, he would be fighting for it," the Argentine added last month following a two-goal performance from his striker in a 3-2 win over Levante.

Barcelona, of course, possess a Ballon d'Or finalist in four-time winner Lionel Messi.

Just back from an extended injury layoff, the 26-year-old scored twice in a cameo appearance against Getafe on Wednesday, but despite the performance Martino has indicated the Argentine may start today's match on the bench.

"We will not jeopardize the efforts of everyone -- himself, the work of the club coaches and trainers -- and all the time spent (rehabilitating him)," the manager remarked in his Friday press conference.

Summer signing Neymar, meanwhile, is set to return to the starting lineup following a bout of gastroenteritis and will likely form one third of an attacking trident alongside Pedro and Alexis Sanchez.

Martino's Barcelona, while continuing to play the high-pressing, possession-oriented game established by former manager Pep Guardiola and continued by Tito Vilanova, is, like himself, rather more practical than previous installments of the reigning Spanish champions.

A disciple of the Marcelo Bielsa school (both men, and Messi, hail from the Argentine city of Rosario), Martino isn't so principled and robotic in his tactics that his teams become predictable -- a criticism sometimes levelled at his predecessors.

"This Barcelona is faster, more vertical," confirmed Simeone on Friday. "A number of variants make them more dangerous."

And complimenting the Atletico outfit his side will be facing, Martino described his Saturday opponent as "the most compact and serious team in Europe -- not only in Spain."

As for their first encounter all those years ago, Simeone and Velez Sarsfield won the match 2-1, although Martino and Newell's Old Boys went on to win the league.

Projected Atletico Madrid XI: Courtois; Juanfran, Miranda, Godin, F.Luis; Koke, Tiago, Gabi, Turan; D.Costa, Villa

Projected Barcelona XI: Valdes; D.Alves, Pique, Bartra, J.Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Pedro, Neymar, Sanchez

jerradpeters@gmail.com Twitter @JerradPeters

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2014 C7

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