Martino excited by Champions League debut
Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino is desperate to taste his first experience of Champions League football when the Catalans host Ajax for the first time in a competitive game on Wednesday.
The 50-year-old Argentine has plenty of experience in the Copa Libertadores, the South American version of Europe's premier club competition, but said that the quality on offer in the Champions League makes it the pinnacle for all players and managers.
"It is clear that to be able to participate in the Champions League is an important point in the career of any coach. Our hopes are high and we are very excited," he told a press conference on Tuesday.
Martino has made a strong start to his time at Barca with the Catalans having taken 12 points from a possible 12 in the league and won the Spanish Super Cup.
However, they have struggled to win 3-2 in their last two league outings against Valencia and Sevilla, with only a 93rd minute winner from Alexis Sanchez securing victory over the latter on Saturday.
Just as in recent seasons, it is Barca's defending that has come under the spotlight, particularly from set-pieces, but Martino said he will stick by the central defensive pairing of Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique for the coming weeks.
"The defensive triangle that Pique and Mascherano make with (Victor) Valdes makes it a more difficult position to change. They have had to do a lot of running and we need to be more solid so that we all run less. We need to fix how the team is working and then we can think about rotating.
"We need to change some things. We had problems from set-pieces defending both zonally and man-to-man. It is a physical problem more than anything and seen as we can't change this aspect, we need to learn how to defend them in the best way possible."
Pique meanwhile acknowledged that Barca had become somewhat predictable in recent years and that Martino's desire for them to play slightly more direct is reasonable.
The Spanish international was quoted in an interview last week as saying Barca had become obsessed with their short-passing style, but insisted that will still remain very much to the forefront of their game.
"Our style is unnegotiable, but in recent years we were predictable. They knew how to defend us and a times it looked like handball with the opposition camped around their box.
"We need to find the balance between when to play more direct and when to play as we always have. Perhaps we are trying to too much to do the things the new coach has asked us, but we need time because we have only had a month together."
Injured pair Jordi Alba and Carles Puyol are the only senior players missing from Martino's 20-man squad for the match. Neymar is included and will also make his first appearance in the Champions League.
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