Meet El Clásico’s new coaches
© AFP

The eyes of the football world will once again be fixed on Spain on Saturday, when La Liga leaders Barcelona take on Real Madrid. Three points separate the sides ahead of the 167th staging of El Clásico, which has lost none of its spice despite much of the tension surrounding the rivalry having evaporated this season, thanks in the main to changes on both benches.

After a period in which off-field exchanges stoked up the animosity between these two old rivals, the presence in the dugouts of Gerardo Martino and Carlo Ancelotti has ensured that football, and nothing else, is the topic of debate in the build-up to this weekend’s showdown.

The arrival of the vastly experienced duo has significantly reduced the hostility generated by the fixture in the last few campaigns. Indeed the only reminder of the recent past on Saturday will be the pre-match fan mosaic offering support to Tito Vilanova, Martino’s predecessor as Barcelona coach, in the ongoing fight against the cancer that caused him to resign. 

There are always more than three points at stake in El Clásico, in which pride and the desire to succeed have traditionally played a part. In the head-to-head standings, Barça have chalked up 60 wins to Real’s 70, although the Catalans have won 57 per cent of their home games against their rivals from the capital. As for the leading scorers in the fixture, that honour is currently shared by Argentinian aces Lionel Messi and Alfredo Di Stefano, who are tied on 18 goals.

Saturday’s game will be the first Clásico for Martino and Ancelotti, two thoughtful coaches who share certain tactical ideas and are equally averse to making rash judgments. Where they differ, however, is in their records, roots and styles. On the eve of the latest clash between Spain’s big two, FIFA.com puts the spotlight on the Argentinian and the Italian and analyses the areas that both separate and bind them.

Their records
El Tata arrived in Barcelona after pulling his beloved Newell’s Old Boys out of a serious slump and making them Argentinian league champions and Copa Libertadores semi-finalists. That personal challenge came after he made history with Paraguay by taking them to the quarter-finals of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, the furthest La Albirroja have ever gone in the competition, and to the final of the Copa America 2011.

In the four years prior to his stint in the Guaraní dugout, Martino enjoyed tremendous success with Libertad and Cerro Porteno, winning a string of league titles and also excelling in the Libertadores, guiding Libertad to the semi-finals of the competition in 2006.

For his part, the new Blancos coach has a very distinguished coaching record in European football. As well as landing league championships with AC Milan in Italy, Chelsea in England and Paris Saint-Germain in France, he has presided over two UEFA Champions League and UEFA Super Cup wins and one FIFA Club World Cup triumph, as well as winning a host of other trophies.

As regards their new careers in Spain, the Argentinian has gained an early advantage, having lifted the Spanish Super Cup at the start of the season.

Their playing positions
The midfield engine room is the foundation of their coaching philosophies, which comes as no surprise when you consider that both manned positions in the centre of the pitch during their playing days.

Idolised by the Messi family, Martino was an exquisitely talented creative midfielder, spending the majority of his career and winning all his league titles with Newell’s, where he even had a jaunty song dedicated to him: “Boca no te vayas/ Boca vení/ quedate a ver al Tata/ parece Platiní” (“Boca don’t go. Boca come back. Stay and watch El Tata. He’s like Platini”). Such was his stature at the Rosario club that a stand at their home ground is named after him.

During his playing days Ancelotti won four Coppas Italia, three scudetti and two European Cups, Intercontinental Cups and European Super Cups. Arrigo Sacchi, his boss at Milan, described him as “a coach on the pitch” and said that although his movements might seem slow, he was always a quick thinker.

Ancelotti played a part in one of the greatest eras in the club’s history, sharing the dressing room with the likes of Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini. El Tata was a team-mate of Diego Maradona’s in the twilight of El Diez’s career, though their association did not prove as fruitful as it might have been.

Their mentors
Martino is a disciple of Marcelo Bielsa, his coach at Newell’s in the early 1990s, although Bielsa has played down his influence. “I learned from him, watching him play football while fulfilling his roles as the leader and captain of the team at the same time,” Bielsa once said of him.

As a coach Martino has shown himself to be nothing if not pragmatic, adopting a professional approach to his craft, doing his homework on opponents, and asking his teams to press high up the pitch while keeping the ball on the ground and far away from their own goal. That said, he has always adapted his approach to the playing resources available to him.

His opposite number Ancelotti has spoken on many occasions of the influence of Swedish coach Nils Liedholm, under whom he played at Roma, and his philosophy of coaching. However, that influence perhaps extends more to the Italian’s approach to the job and his dealings with players than in fundamental aspects and systems.

“He was the perfect coach. He was an inspiration and not once did I hear him shout at a player,” said Ancelotti, who has become known above all for his tact and diplomacy and ability to handle squads packed with star players.

Their philosophy
Gerardo Martino: “My view is that we don’t need to change our style. Someone made a comparison and found that Barça had 66 percent possession in the league last season, whereas now it’s 65.8 percent. Can you really call 0.2 a change in style? When you look at the players it was obvious there was a certain style of play, but there was also a need to find alternatives, ones that are also in Barça’s DNA. Koeman used to hit long cross balls at Stoichkov, for example. There are always topics for debate here.”

Carlo Ancelotti: “We don’t need 30 passes to find the solution. You need to be clever enough to find it sooner. Three passes are all you need. I can’t work against the quality of my players. If we can find the solution in three passes instead of 30, then that’s what we do. We’ve changed lots of things. With possession, we need more time to think. We have to play a more effective game. But I can assure you the team will play well, and very soon too.”