Barca flips page after Super Cup win
Barcelona’s 0-0 draw at home to Atletico Madrid in Wednesday night’s Spanish Super Cup second leg was enough for it to take the trophy via the narrowest margin of away goals. But the performance showed new manager Gerardo Martino’s tweaks to his side’s playing style have yet to bear fruit.
Martino has a trophy after just five weeks in the Barca hotseat, but for much of the two-legged Super Cup tie his opposite number Diego Simeone had the tactical upper hand. Atletico’s disciplined defence shut down Barca’s attacking superstars Lionel Messi and Neymar for most of Wednesday's game, before its opponent's tiredness and lack of discipline helped the Catalan side over the line.
The new man admitted this week he had been “parachuted into the job” when Tito Vilanova stepped down in late July. The former Newell’s Old Boys and Paraguay coach was then no household name, but has not once looked overawed at the scale of his new position.
Talks about transfers with president Sandro Rosell and sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta have apparently gone smoothly, with all three agreeing broadly on the policy to be pursued. Existing players have been praised for their past achievements, while reminded that last season’s European failure was not good enough. And potential media flashpoints such as Messi’s potentially troubling left-thigh injury or Neymar’s lack of on-pitch minutes have been dealt with calmly but firmly.
Martino’s lineup for Wednesday night’s game showed how he was comfortable making his own decisions. All of Catalonia had been calling for Neymar -- who had scored the equalizer in last week’s first leg at Atletico’s ground -- to make his full Barca debut before now. The €57 million man was held back, but unleashed from the start on Wednesday. Messi -- peripheral then injured in the first leg -- returned to the team alongside the Brazilian in attack.
Gerardo Martino embraces Xavi Hernandez and Cesc Fabregas following Barcelona's Spanish Super Cup aggregate win over Atletico Madrid (Image: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images).
In midfield, Andres Iniesta was on the bench, with Cesc Fabregas and Xavi Hernandez the two midfield creators. This decision made sense, with Fabregas’ greater physicality proving useful against Atletico’s aggression -- and the ex-Arsenal man’s movement fitting with Martino’s plan to evolve Barca’s game towards a faster, more vertical approach.
You could see what Martino was trying to do, but in the first half it did not really work. Fabregas’ off the ball movement caused problems, but Neymar often ran into traffic, while Messi was fouled before he could get going. The two South Americans only came together in their frustration at their lack of opportunities close to goal. Barca had 80% possession, but Atletico had the two best chances of the first half.
The visitors were happy to sit and defend, but as time ticked by it more regularly went looking for the away goal they needed. Goalkeeper Victor Valdes was Barca’s player of the match, making his second superb stop of the game to deny David Villa. Simeone was now on top in the tactical battle of Argentine coaches.
Martino’s first change was to bring on Pedro Rodriguez for Alexis Sanchez -- leaving Messi and Neymar in place. The Brazilian had the best chance to break the deadlock -- but miscued his volley from Daniel Alves’ cross. The Argentine also came close at the end of a typical Barca tiki-taka move, but still the two superstars appeared on different wavelengths.
As the hard work being put in by every Atletico player began to tell, Barca finally found some space as the visitors’ concentration also frayed; Atletico’s Filipe Luis red carded; Diego Costa lucky not to be sent off; Miranda conceding a late penalty kick. Messi’s difficult start to the season continued though as he hammered the penalty off the crossbar, leading to a sense of anti-climax even as the Catalan side celebrated the first trophy of the Spanish season.
Once the transfer window shuts on Monday night, Martino will know his squad for the rest of the campaign. He says he is happy with his squad, but sources in Catalonia suggest a new young centerback or an experienced forward could still arrive.
More importanty, the new Barca coach will now have time to work with what he already has. More training ground work is required to get his ideas across, while careful management of egos is also needed -- for instance, World Cup winner Iniesta will not have enjoyed watching 72 minutes from the bench against Atletico Madrid.
It’s still early and nothing about Martino’s demeanor suggests he is unlikely to panic. Barring an unfortunate surprise in Thursday’s Champions League draw, Barca’s first real test comes on Oct. 26 when Real Madrid visit the Camp Nou for the season’s first El Clasico.
''I'm happy with the title. Whenever there is a title in play what counts is winning it,'' Martino said after the match. ''But as far as the team goes, I want to see more. Above all in these types of games, we need to find more precision and the ability to create more spaces.''
Martino has shown so far that he is his own man, with his own ideas of how Barca can be improved. Now he must show he can put those ideas into practice.