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Soccer-Martino, Simeone renew old rivalry in Europe

Reuters

By Iain Rogers

MADRID, March 31 (Reuters) - Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino and his Atletico Madrid counterpart Diego Simeone clashed as rival players in their native Argentina and there will be no quarter given when they meet in the last eight of the Champions League on Tuesday.

A callow Simeone was not yet 18 when he faced Martino, nearly 10 years his senior, in a league match between Velez Sarsfield and Newell's Old Boys in January 1988, when Martino was sent off for a challenge on fellow midfielder Simeone, who was himself dismissed 10 minutes later.

No stranger to controversy during his playing career -- Simeone was involved in the sending off of England midfielder David Beckham at the 1998 World Cup -- he admitted last year he had indulged in a spot of play-acting to try to provoke a red card for Martino.

"There was an incident in the middle of the pitch," Simeone recalled in an interview with Argentine television.

"He reacted to something, I exaggerated a bit and they ended up sending him off," added the 43-year-old, said to play "with a knife between his teeth".

"They sent me off about 10 minutes later, the referee compensated a little for his earlier decision."

Almost three decades later and the older and wiser Martino and Simeone are in charge of two Spanish teams with a genuine chance of achieving a rare double of Champions League and La Liga titles.

Atletico are a point clear of Barca at the top of Spain's domestic league with seven games left and their final match of the campaign is another trip to Barca's daunting Nou Camp arena in May.

They have already played each other three times this term, with very little to choose between the sides.

Barca pipped Atletico to the season-opening Spanish Super Cup when Neymar's goal in a 1-1 first-leg draw in Madrid was enough for Barca after the second leg ended 0-0. Their La Liga game at the Calderon in January also finished goalless.

Barca warmed up for Tuesday's last eight, first leg with a laboured 1-0 win at city rivals Espanyol on Saturday thanks to a Lionel Messi penalty, while Diego Costa and Koke scored for Atletico in a 2-1 comeback win at Athletic Bilbao.

Simeone's men will need to demonstrate the same intensity they showed at the San Mames if they are to get the better of a Barca side buoyed by this month's 4-3 win at Real Madrid in the La Liga 'Clasico'.

Messi, whose season was disrupted by a two-month injury layoff either side of the New Year, appears to be coming into top form at exactly the right time, while playmaker Andres Iniesta is also looking close to his scintillating best.

Messi, the four-times World Player of the Year who comes from Martino's home town of Rosario, has scored 20 goals in 19 matches against Atletico, including three hat-tricks.

WINNING MENTALITY

Barca playmaker Xavi said he would have preferred not to meet another Spanish team in Europe and praised Simeone for the way he has transformed Atletico since taking over at the end of 2011.

"Atletico Madrid know us very well," Xavi said in an interview published on Atletico's website (www.clubatleticodemadrid.com) on Sunday.

"Simeone has instilled an extraordinary winning mentality in the team and they have absolute faith in what they are doing," added the Spain international.

"It will be a very close tie, with few scoring chances due to the way Atletico play.

"It is never fun playing them. They don't allow you any space, they cover our creative areas very well.

"They don't leave room down the wings, they deploy people very effectively in the middle of the pitch and they are good on the counter attack."

The goals of Atletico's Brazil-born forward Costa have underpinned the team's success this season and he notched his 25th of the La Liga campaign at Bilbao, three behind top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid and two ahead of Messi.

Costa will be up against a host of new team mates from his adopted country Spain on Tuesday, including defenders Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba and midfielders Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Iniesta.

"Costa is a lad who is improving day by day, he has enormous physical strength," Simeone told a news conference.

"The way the team plays is a consequence of what he can give us and he feels comfortable in the side."

The winner of the tie following next week's second leg in Madrid will go into the draw for the semi-finals on April 11.

In the other three quarter-finals, Real Madrid play Borussia Dortmund, Paris St Germain take on Chelsea and holders Bayern Munich face Manchester United. (Editing by Josh Reich)

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