New Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino’s first job will be to persuade midfielder Cesc Fabregas not to leave the club and join Manchester United.
Sources close to the former Arsenal midfielder suggest his head has been turned by interest from United to the extent that he is “considering his future” after they were understood to have made another offer.
In an interview while at Argentinian side Newell’s Old Boys last year Martino made it clear how much he rates Fabregas. Speaking about Barcelona’s style of play he said: “It will never change but it would be harder to maintain without certain players such as Xavi, Iniesta and Cesc.”
Martino will not take charge of tonight’s friendly with Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich but will be formally presented on Friday and will walk immediately into a crisis. Now he could be forced to start the season without the midfielder whose departure would leave Barcelona with just four first team players for three positions having allowed Thiago to join Bayern Munich last month.
Martino spoke last night in a press conference in Rosario about the challenge of taking over from Tito Vilanova. He admitted that Lionel Messi and his father Jorge may have influenced the Barça board’s decision to give him the job saying: “I’m sure Jorge and Lionel Messi had some influence, how much I don’t know.”
Martino is Barcelona’s fourth Argentine coach after Helenio Herrera, Roque Olse and César Luis Menotti. He arrives with all the usual doubts that cloud a European debutants first season but more importantly he comes with Messi’s blessing.
Barcelona’s No 10 described the decision yesterday as a “nice surprise” while others suggested he had been kingmaker as Barcelona overlooked former player Luis Enrique despite current captain Carles Puyol understood to have favoured the recently appointed Celta Vigo coach.
The fact that Barcelona knew the appointment would delight Messi – and his dad Jorge, who was Martino’s biggest fan – will have done the 50-year-old coach’s case no harm but it also seems to have been the wisdom of old heads such as Marcelo Bielsa and Jorge Valdano that made-up Sporting Director Andoni Zubizareta’s mind.
He is understood to have 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 he could not continue 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 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 Boys 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 they also considered Manuel Pellegrini.
Ultimately Pellegrini agreed to move to Manchester City before Barcelona’s need to look for a new manager was realised but Pellegrini remains the perfect role model for Martino. Having won two leagues in Argentina he adapted quickly to working in Europe and enjoyed relative success with Villarreal and Malaga. With Messi at his disposal even more will be expected of him.