Ernesto Valverde comes face to face with FC Barcelona once again for a Sunday showdown at San Mamés

Matches between Athletic Club and FC Barcelona are usually epic, especially when held at San Mamés in Bilbao. That is where the Basque and Catalan clubs will meet this Sunday night. If we look at the duels these two clubs have had in Bilbao across all competitions over the last 10 years, there have been eight Barça wins, six Athletic Club wins and three draws, with an average of 3.2 goals scored.

On Matchday 25, this rivalry should once again produce thrills and one man who knows this fixture well is Ernesto Valverde. As a coach, he has been involved in 25 matches between Athletic Club and FC Barcelona, managing the Basque side in 20 of them and the Catalan side on five occasions.

Both Athletic Club and Barça made Valverde the man he is today

During his playing career, Valverde also played for both of these clubs. He played as a forward for Barça between 1988 and 1990, before representing Athletic Club from 1990 to 1996. After retiring, he took his first steps in coaching in Bilbao, working in the Lezama academy and then becoming Athletic Club’s first-team coach in 2003.

Johan Cruyff was always good at spotting a talented tactician and he detected early on that Valverde, one of his former charges at FC Barcelona, had the makings of a great coach. “He is one of the most outstanding and most promising coaches in Spain,” the Dutchman said when Valverde was taking his first steps in management with Athletic Club.

Cruyff was right and Valverde achieved so much success at Athletic Club, and at other clubs such as RCD Espanyol or Olympiacos, that he earned the FC Barcelona job after Luis Enrique left.

Two LaLiga Santander titles as coach of FC Barcelona

Valverde had the unenviable task of taking over at Barça just as they had surrendered the 2016/17 La Liga Santander title to Real Madrid. This was a period, lest we forget when Gerard Piqué declared after a Spanish Super Cup defeat to Los Merengues that it was the first time in almost 10 years that he felt Barça were inferior to Real Madrid.

But, under Valverde’s quiet but firm leadership, Barça quickly re-asserted themselves as the top side in Spain, romping to consecutive LaLiga Santander titles in 2017/18 and 2018/19, leaving Real Madrid and Atlético de Madrid in their wake, as well as lifting the 2018 Copa del Rey and reaching the final in 2019.

They were even on the brink of finishing Valverde’s first FC Barcelona season undefeated in LaLiga Santander, only losing in their 37th match of the campaign, against Levante UD.

Valverde’s downfall was the Champions League, with the club struggling to digest shock second-leg defeats to Roma and then Liverpool to exit the competition in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively after squandering healthy first-leg advantages. But, perhaps FC Barcelona only realised how good things were under Valverde once he was gone.

Since departing Camp Nou, Valverde has harboured no grudge about the circumstances in which he left the club. Instead, he kept a low profile, enjoying time away from the game and focusing on his other passion, photography, including hosting exhibitions of his artwork in Bilbao and San Sebastián.

Valverde’s return to management

In the summer of 2022, he returned to the San Mamés dugout and it is heartening for all lovers of Spanish football to see him back in the game and back with Athletic Club. They have once again got their sights set on qualifying for Europe and are just four points off the European qualification spots. Los Leones have not competed in Europe for five seasons, after having become a regular fixture in continental football when Valverde was in charge.

He guided them to UEFA Cup qualification in his first season as first-team coach in 2003/04, taking them into the Intertoto Cup the following season. In his first season back for a second stint in 2013/14, he performed a sporting miracle by leading Athletic Club into the Champions League for the first time in 16 years and then into the Europa League three years in a row.

European football is where Valverde belongs. He took RCD Espanyol all the way to the UEFA Cup final in the 2006/07 season and enjoyed countless memorable European nights as coach of Olympiakos, who he also led to three domestic titles in as many seasons.

Wherever he goes, Valverde guarantees consistency and success. FC Barcelona’s loss is now Athletic Club’s gain and their paths will cross again on Sunday.

MG Team

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