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Martino's Barcelona extra-terrestrials are back on earth but still have chance of title

GERARDO 'TATA' MARTINO describes the era that preceded his arrival at Barcelona, a period that has cast such a long shadow over his first season as head coach, as something "extra-terrestrial".

The difficulties the Argentine is facing as he prepares to lead his team into this evening's last-day, must-win encounter with Primera Division rivals Atletico Madrid, however, are all very human.

For starters, there is the simple fact that, whether he masterminds the home victory required to secure a fifth championship in six seasons for the Blaugrana or not, he looks very likely to lose his job.

No-one is prepared to confirm he is on the way out, but he has had to put the blinkers on in the closing stages of this most extraordinary of title races after a television crew caught his director of football, Andoni Zubizarreta, holding a private meeting with Luis Enrique at the Celta Vigo manager's home in the Catalan coastal town of Gava.

Enrique, whose time as a player at Barca is remembered fondly, announced yesterday afternoon that he is leaving the Galician club. Everyone else started putting two and two together.

Martino has more immediate headaches. In five meetings with Diego Simeone's combative side this season, they have failed to win, drawing four of those fixtures and losing the other on their own patch in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

The embattled Martino needs to find something to energise and galvanise his men. It looks very much as though his countryman in the opposite dugout has got his number. Of course, there is a feeling the Catalan media have also been finding ways to break him down since he arrived as a surprise replacement for Tito Vilanova, who resigned last July as his struggle with cancer took its toll.

Martino has found himself consistently measured against the glories of the past. You can argue, however, that the 51-year-old was behind the eight-ball from the start. He was parachuted in following the departure of Vilanova, Guardiola's former assistant and successor, with limited time to prepare.

Lionel Messi - who just became the world's highest-paid player with a new £16.3m-a-year contract - stated this week that he wants to triumph in the league as a tribute to his former coach and memories of the man will leave an electric charge around a crackling Camp Nou tonight. Winning it for Vilanova will mean a lot to Martino as well. Indeed, it is in discussing that issue, where he shows his own humanity best. "As manager of Barcelona, the toughest moment was the death of Tito, even though I didn't have a close relationship with him," said Martino yesterday. "I hope the best moment will be tomorrow.

"If we win the Primera Division title this season, it will be the first title won in a season played like normal people - with suffering, with battles, with dissension.

"The other titles in other years were won by extra-terrestrials."

Martino has handled all the criticism that has come his way with relatively good grace. "I think there has been a certain injustice," he remarked. "I've had the opportunity to manage players who have made history within football.

"More than of vindication, it is a question of respect that should have been granted. I really want to win the title for the players. I wish with all my heart to win the game and wish with all my heart to be a champion with Barcelona. However, I decide what I want to do and no title will change me."

Figuring out the puzzles provided by Atletico remains a major challenge, though. Despite a stellar season that has also seen them reach the Champions League final, the Madrid club are no team of extra-terrestrials. They are, however, defensively strong and physically demanding to play against.

"I certainly think Atletico are the best team, defensively, in Europe," said Xavi Hernandez. "They are a hugely difficult opponent, but this is a grand final, a spectacular."

Simeone is certainly relishing the prospect of leading the club to its first title since 1996, when he played in the heart of their midfield. His leading scorer Diego Costa has been reported fit to play following injury and he is keen to point out that his side have ambitions far beyond some kind of containment exercise to secure the single point they need.

They will not go hell-for-leather, but, to pinch a phrase from the boxing world, styles make fights and these are two teams with differing approaches. "We have a different style to Barcelona, but that does not mean we do not think about attack," said Simeone. "To attack well, you have to defend better.

"We are trying to come up with the best ways to make sure the match is played on our terms."

Simeone's captain, Gabi, has offered an insight into the mentality the manager has instilled. "Atletico Madrid have to die on the field," stated Gabi. "We have a historic opportunity to win the league in one game and the Champions League in another. I am sure both Real Madrid and Barcelona would like to change places with us."

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