The meeting of Paraguay and Chile in the South American qualifiers on 6 June is one of the most eagerly awaited of Matchday 13. Not only are the two teams major contenders for berths at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, but the showdown in Asuncion will also pit against each other two coaches with a shared history.
The men in question are Argentinians Marcelo Bielsa and Gerardo Martino, who have shared some of the sweetest moments in their respective careers. El Tata (Martino) was the midfield creator in the first team Bielsa coached in the early 90s, Newell's Old Boys, where they duo enjoyed a league championship win in 1991 and finished runners-up in the Copa Libertadores the following year.
The similarities between the two men are considerable. Both were born in Rosario, became idols at Newell's Old Boys and were part of the golden era in that club's history. In an interview shortly after El Loco (Bielsa) took over the reins at Newell's in 1990, Martino said: "Perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself as he's only been here six months, but I believe he has what it takes to become one of the country's finest coaches. He's surprised me; he's capable, intelligent and very hard-working."
And he was not wrong either. With El Tata orchestrating play from midfield and Bielsa dictating tactics from the bench, Newell's came within a whisker of becoming continental champions, only being denied by Tele Santana's Sao Paulo on penalties in the decider. "Martino is top notch. He's works like all the others, but he's three times as smart," said El Loco at the time, unaware that his protégé would so closely follow in his footsteps.
But it is not just their career paths that have much in common. The pair have a comparable feeling for the game and often talk about it in similar terms, a point underlined by Adrian Coria, coach of the Argentina U-20 side: "Gerardo has remembered a lot of what he learned under Marcelo. There is a similarity there, especially in terms of going on the offensive, winning back possession and not letting your opponents feel comfortable. He places a lot of store in the physical side of the game."
There are differences as well, of course. Bielsa has enjoyed success as a coach in the Argentinian league, impressed during his six-year tenure at the helm of La Albiceleste (1998-2004), and even had a short spell in Spain. Martino, for his part, has had most of his success in Paraguay, where he has coached, among others, Cerro Porteno and Libertad and won multiple titles. Now, as head of La Albirroja, he is hoping to reach even greater heights.
"I've always admired Bielsa, even back when he was starting out as a coach and I was coming to the end of my playing career. I immediately liked him as a professional and as a person," Martino admitted to FIFA.com. And it seems the professional and personal respect is mutual. Asked about his former player, El Loco replied: "What can I tell you about Martino? I learned a lot from him, that's for sure."
Even physically, many have commented on the resemblance between the two men, a point not lost on Martino. "People say we're alike? That must be just physically! Seriously, though, if someone compares you to an individual as irreproachable, capable and honest as Marcelo, you cannot but feel good about it. I consider it a real honour."
Eulogies aside, both men know the importance of their upcoming meeting. La Albirroja want a win to stay out in front in the table and close in on a berth in South Africa, while Bielsa's Roja need all the points they can get to hold onto their current position of third and join them at the showpiece event next year.
Of course, the pair crossed swords once already in this campaign - the corresponding fixture in Santiago, where Martino steered Paraguay to a 3-0 away win. So could the visitors exact revenge at the Defensores del Chaco? "It won't be an easy game for us. Chile are a very good side and try to take on teams wherever they play," says Martino. His counterpart was being equally respectful, saying recently, "In this game we'll do the same things we've been doing so far, but in the knowledge that we'll be facing a rival team that are doing very well and deserve to be on top of the table." Even in their deference, it seems, the duo manage to find common ground.