Valverde can get revenge, redemption vs. Atlético, Barcelona

If this is to be a week of revenge, vindication and resurrection for Ernesto Valverde, then it certainly hasn’t started well. He and Athletic Club, his Lions of San Mames, face Atlético Madrid at home in the second leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal on Thursday (stream LIVE on ESPN+) and then host Barcelona on Sunday in LaLiga (stream LIVE on ESPN+). There’s so much resting on both results, but back to that in a minute.

There are many who, despite the 12 trophies Athletic Club’s Basque manager has won across his career, wrongly persist in considering him a “nearly” man. A “close, but no cigar guy.” That’s based on him, as a player, leaving Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona immediately before they won four straight LaLiga titles and the first European Cup final in their history. Unfortunate timing.

It’s also based on the fact that, as Espanyol’s star winger, he was part of a group that led Bayer Leverkusen 3-0 in the first leg of the 1988 UEFA Cup final but then lost the second leg 3-0 and then 3-2 in the penalty shootout in Germany to kiss goodbye a trophy that already had their fingerprints on it. Football can be cruel, so, of course, Valverde was eventually Espanyol’s manager when their 10-man side lost the 2007 UEFA Cup final at a rain-drenched Hampden Park in Glasgow again on penalties, only this time to Sevilla. Nearly. So very nearly.

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Along the way it was the 60-year-old, nicknamed “The Ant” in his playing days partly because of his diminutive stature and partly because of his perpetually industrious wing play, who nearly got Barcelona back to the Champions League final in 2019. Remember Anfield? One of the most glorious nights in the entire 69-year history of the competition came at Valverde’s expense.

His Barça side were blitzed out of the tournament by a Liverpool team that played at the outside edges of conviction, passion, intensity, creativity, risk and reward. It was simply sensational … unless you were Valverde, his squad or a Barcelona supporter. What’s forgotten, I think, is that Barcelona’s 3-0 first-leg win, which Jurgen Klopp’s Reds overcame at Anfield, should have been 4-0 given that Messi set Ousmane Dembélé up for a sitter in the last seconds, only for the erratic Frenchman to miss.

Given that Valverde’s Barcelona had been 4-1 up against Roma the previous season but lost 3-0 in the Italian capital to depart the tournament — and, in his last season at Camp Nou, they lost the Copa del Rey final 2-1 to Valencia — this “nearly” tag has stuck with him, completely and unfairly, for those who don’t pay proper attention.

So, back to revenge, vindication and resurrection. It was Atlético Madrid who eventually cost Valverde his job as Barcelona manager. Flash back to January 2020: while Valverde’s Blaugrana team had been showing only moderate form, they were still top of LaLiga (on goal difference) above Real Madrid when two late strikes from Diego Simeone’s Atleti defeated Barca 3-2 in the Spanish Supercup semifinal … and that was that for the manager. Sacked.

Now, it’s important to state that Valverde won’t be driven by thoughts of revenge, but high-level sport is as much of a human drama industry as it is a commercial machine. If it wasn’t, nobody would be interested. Thus, the extra premium hanging there deliciously for Valverde is that it’s Simeone’s Atleti, with nine of the same players who were there when Los Rojiblancos tipped Barcelona into freefall four years ago, that Athletic need to defeat at San Mames on Wednesday in order to reach the Copa del Rey final.

Please bear in mind that the two clubs are very far from equals when it comes to getting their paws on the spoils of Spanish football. Athletic might be the second-most successful club in terms of Copa del Rey wins, but they haven’t lifted this trophy for precisely 40 years. Perhaps worse and more painful is that they’ve lost six Copa finals in those four subsequent decades. Simply in terms of silverware, for example, when Valverde steered Athletic to their sensational 5-1 win over Barcelona in the 2015 Supercup Final, it was Los Leones’ first trophy for 31 years. Atleti, by comparison, have lifted 10 trophies (mostly under Simeone) in the past 14 years.

San Mames, even in its new, beautiful and stunningly atmospheric version, is still known as “The Cathedral” of Spanish football. So there will be a lot of extremely fervent Basque prayers offered up when Atleti arrive to try to overturn their 1-0 deficit from the first leg — prayers along the lines of “please don’t let this be one of those ‘nearly’ nights, one of those ‘close, but no cigar’ nights.”

They crave being in that final, and winning the trophy obviously, but especially since their historic Basque rivals, Real Sociedad, might already be awaiting them given that La Real‘s home leg of their semifinal against Mallorca is being played the previous night.

Honestly, imagine that: another all-Basque final in Sevilla’s Olympic stadium in April. The last one was the 2020 final, postponed a year because of the pandemic but nevertheless still one that had to be played without fans in April 2021. Athletic lost — of course they did — but without us worrying too much about which of the two might taste Basque victory this time, the sheer spectacle of the ultimate Andalusian city (Sevilla) being overwhelmed by tens of thousands of supporters from San Sebastián and Bilbao is sumptuously tantalising, should they each make it there. The world will stop to pay attention, believe me.

I mentioned that the week hasn’t started well for Valverde — or Athletic — in that they stank in losing at Real Betis. Worse still, their important left-back, Yuri Berchiche, injured himself, and while Nico Williams and Dani Vivian will both be available for the Copa semifinal, each is suspended for the second part of Valverde’s revenge-vindication-resurrection opportunity this week. That’s when they host Spain’s reigning champions, Barcelona, in LaLiga on Sunday.

Of course, it’s not just about the fact that Josep Maria Bartomeu, Barcelona’s ex-president who oversaw the club accumulating well over €1.2 billion global debt and left them crippled by LaLiga’s financial fair play regulations, sacked Valverde. Not only about “revenge.”

Athletic represent Basque pride: they use only footballers either born or raised in their northern territory of Spain. No other club in the world, ever, can claim that it operates such strict “self-regulating” selection criterion. Yet Los Leones are one of only three clubs, along with Madrid and Barcelona, who have never been relegated.

The flip side is that getting proper elbow room at the top table is hard. Athletic have played in the Champions League only twice — the last time coming under Valverde in 2015 — and it’s been six years since they had any European football. The Lions want to roar again.

Had they won at Betis, Athletic would have gone into the top four, but they fell flat on their faces. Recent meetings with Barcelona have been gargantuan, fantastic entertainment: the past five at San Mames have included a 3-2 win for each team and, most recently, Athletic winning 4-2 after extra time.

Valverde isn’t much for nostalgia, not for “what might have beens.” On the rare occasion he has spoken about his time at Barcelona, when there was a whiff of decline or “end of an era,” he has done it euphemistically.

His choice of comparison was when Italian basketball coach Sergio Scariolo joined the Toronto Raptors as assistant coach in 2018 before going on to help them win their first NBA title. So when Valverde described his own experience at Barcelona to his friend Lu Martin in Relevo, he used the cross-sport comparison to say “Scariolo had won lots of trophies, everyone said he was very good, but he was used to those previous projects being ‘his’. When he got to the NBA, and Toronto, he realised that this was the players’ project … that he had to adapt to them, not the other way around.”

It’s a clear way of explaining that while Valverde’s Barcelona era had sublime, aging footballers — Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez, Gerard Pique et al — he didn’t feel like he was wholly in charge. It was a negotiated process, not a traditional hierarchical one and, in due course, the much more relaxed training ground regimen favoured by the big beasts of the Barcelona squad cost them in competitive terms. Oh, and it was Valverde, not the players, who paid the price.

The irony is that with Xavi steadfast in his desire to leave in June, Valverde would be the absolutely ideal replacement. Yet that ship sailed a long time ago; Barcelona have burned their bridges with Valverde once and for all. And so Spain’s reigning champions go to Bilbao in a Champions League slot, eight points ahead of Valverde’s team, and it would be a massive bit of business for the Basque to remind the Catalans what a coaching talent they lost and, in the process, propel Los Leones toward European football again next season.

The week hasn’t started well for Valverde, but it remains an intriguing and promising one nonetheless. Revenge, vindication, resurrection, a cup final place and edging toward the Champions League aren’t often on offer as they are this week, over the course of three days: “nearly” won’t do it here.