Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

New manager a great fit for Barca

Martino likes style of play, could tinker

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There were a few minutes during the 2010 World Cup when it seemed as though Spain would crash out at the quarter-final stage.

Winners of Euro 2008 and, as it turned out, the World Cup in South Africa and Euro 2012 as well, their dynasty was nearly ended before it really began -- just a Nelson Valdez offside-goal away from being put to the test in extra time by a Paraguay side that had finished atop a group including Italy, New Zealand and Slovakia.

In charge of Paraguay at the time was an Argentine named Gerardo Martino, and following David Villa's 83rd-minute winner in Johannesburg, he announced his resignation from La Albirroja.

National association president Juan Angel Napout twisted his arm into staying on long enough to take Paraguay into the 2011 Copa America, but after finishing second to Uruguay, he quit the team for good, taking a post at the club he had starred for as a player: Rosario-based Newell's Old Boys.

Earlier this week, when Martino was named manager of Spanish champions FC Barcelona, it was Rosario and Newell's that formed much of the subtext surrounding his appointment.

Born in the northeastern Argentine city about 300 kilometres up the Paran° River from Buenos Aires, Martino the midfielder won a pair of titles under then-Newell's boss Marcelo Bielsa, who had himself, represented the club as a player after growing up in Rosario.

Renowned for his eccentric approach to training and cultured use of tactics, Bielsa was among the candidates to replace outgoing Barcelona manager Tito Vilanova until the Catalans opted for one of his most loyal disciples.

Not surprisingly, Martino's ties to Lionel Messi didn't hurt his case. Messi, the four-time Ballon d'Or winner, was also born in Rosario and joined the youth setup at Newell's Old Boys in 1995, when Martino was still with the senior side.

Upon his hiring, Martino speculated that Messi might even have put in a word for him with the Barcelona board, but at his introductory press conference on Friday, he backtracked from the speculation, saying that despite the Rosario connection, Messi hadn't been involved in the decision.

Nevertheless, Martino's appointment is one that makes sense on many levels, but none more so than his new club's stylistic tradition.

"We are comfortable with the 4-3-3 that Barcelona have used lately," he told reporters upon his presentation, adding, "The pressure and rapid recovery of the ball is one of the traits we most want to maintain in the team."

But the 50-year-old is rather more pragmatic than either Vilanova or Pep Guardiola, whose tactical fingerprints were all over the club's three Primera Division titles and two Champions League crowns claimed between 2008 and 2012.

As he demonstrated with Paraguay in 2010, Martino is not averse to tinkering if his initial template doesn't produce results. And for a Barcelona side that has sometimes seemed to lack unpredictability and fresh ideas, his influence will be welcome.

Rosario has come to Camp Nou. For Barcelona, it looks to be a very good thing. For everyone else, not so much.


Spot kicks

-- Sunday's Gold Cup final between the United States and Panama is a rematch of the 2005 contest at Giants Stadium that saw the Americans defeat their Central American opponents on penalties following a scoreless draw. Landon Donovan successfully converted his spot kick that day and has been one of the standout players at this summer's tournament -- a showing that will surely see him recalled to the USA's World Cup qualification squad.

-- On Wednesday, Atl©tico Mineiro beat Olimpia on penalties to win the Copa Libertadores, and after the triumph, Atl©tico playmaker Ronaldinho took to Twitter to confront his critics, saying, "The title goes to everyone that believed in me... To all those who doubted me... know that you motivated me a lot." Twitter @JerradPeters

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2013 C5

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