By Cillian Shields l @pile_of_eggs
‘Sacked for winning the Copa del Rey’—the first trophy the club had won in 11 years—after delivering Champions League football for two successive seasons, Marcelino came face-to-face with his old employers Valencia for the first time this weekend, now as the manager of Athletic Bilbao.
There is plenty of bitterness between the manager and the club hierarchy, but none of that ill-will is shared among the players as evident by the smiles and embraces between Marcelino and Gabriel, Guedes, Maxi Gómez, and Jaume after the full time whistle. These players enjoyed some of the best days of their career under this coach, before Peter Lim unceremoniously sacked Marcelino under the pretence of a poor start to the 2019/20 season, but in reality was down to personal discrepancies between the pair.
Toward the business end of the 2018/19 season, Valencia had been fighting on two fronts: in the hunt for the Copa del Rey as well as the fourth Champions League berth. Clubs are in line to gain significantly more money for qualifying for Europe’s premier competition, but fans value the enjoyment of cup final days and the glory of trophies as much or more than simply making it over the line into 4th spot in the league.
As such, Valencia’s owners put pressure on the hugely popular Marcelino to effectively drop out of the cup, play reserve teams and essentially forget about it as any real competition. The dangers of missing out on the financially enriching group stages of the Champions League were too great to risk exhausting the first team squad for. Marcelino, the players, and the fans didn’t agree.
Los Che thrillingly overcame Getafe in the quarter-finals in one of the most action-packed cup ties of recent years, edged out Real Betis in the semis by a single goal with a 92nd minute away equaliser in the first leg turning the dynamic of the tie on its head, and overcame a Barcelona still in shock after their 4-0 Anfield collapse just a couple of weeks prior. For the first time in 11 years, Valencia had a trophy to celebrate.
However, the owners were bizarrely not celebrating this triumph. They felt strongly disrespected by Marcelino’s decision to ignore their orders of leaving the cup to one side and focusing solely on reaching a top four finish. Despite the fact that Marcelino still delivered Champions League football that same season, disagreements and arguments over squad planning came to a head and owner Peter Lim alongside president Anil Murty gave the manager his marching orders. But, as Marcelino put it, he was “sacked for winning the cup.”
A new dawn in Bilbao
Fast forward to January 2021, and Marcelino is now tasked with bringing similar levels of glory back to the Lions of the Basque country. The former Villarreal and Racing Santander coach has had a whirlwind start to life in the Basque country, taking on Barcelona three times, Real Madrid once, progressing in the Copa del Rey on penalties after scoring a 94th minute equaliser, and even bringing home the second trophy the club have won in the last 37 years.
Added to Athletic’s honour list is now the 2020/21 Spanish Supecopa, a four-team mini tournament that the club qualified for by virtue of reaching the 2019/20 Copa del Rey final, all the way back before the Covid-19 pandemic gripped the world.
The final for that cup is yet to be played, but bizarrely it gives Marcelino the chance to retain the cup, as his Valencia side are the last team to win it. Even more bizarrely, Athletic Bilbao are already through to the semi-finals of the 2020/21 Copa del Rey, with the final likely to be played just a couple of weeks after the previous season’s showpiece, giving Marcelino and Athletic the chance to win two Copa del Rey finals in the same month. Real Sociedad, their opponents in the 2019/20 final, are already out of this year’s competition, so they will not have the same opportunity.
The Lions could well do it, too. Although their squad is limited in quality, they can pride themselves on being fuelled by their Basque spirit, as Athletic famously only use players either from the Basque Country or who had their football upbringing in the Basque Country.
Marcelino is a coach well known for getting his players in excellent physical condition. He will make his squad leaner and stronger, controlling their diets and bulking them up in the gym. At a club like Athletic, this could be the perfect recipe for success. Without having the luxury of buying any player to improve the squad, physicality can be an answer to finding new ways to improve, and they now have the perfect coach to achieve that.
The style of play could too be a match made in heaven. The manager employs a rigorous 4-4-2 system, with the focus on strong defensive lines and impactful counterattacks going forward. Marcelino took over a team that found itself in a state of flux, lacking identity, that have not been able to string two wins together all season. His football is perfectly suited to the bruising Basque tradition of fighting for every ball and being strong in the air and in the tackle. He can reinforce Athletic Bilbao with their own traditional identity that has not been seen for some time now.
The biggest caveat for the new marriage between manager and team is the fact that he’s taking over in this season, i.e., the most condensed campaign, without a proper pre-season or a winter break. This coronavirus-affected year is going to be the most difficult year of footballers’ lives, as their bodies will be put through gruelling tests like no other season has provided, with the effects of it being shown so clearly in the increase in muscle injuries players are having around the world.
As such, Marcelino will have to perform a balancing act between the physical demands he will put on his players and ensuring he doesn’t overstretch them and inadvertently contribute to further fatigue and injuries.
With a league campaign already amounting to little just past the halfway point, Athletic could be more than forgiven for focusing their efforts on the two remaining cups to be played out, even if it means that the league campaign takes a back seat. Undoubtedly, if they are in peak physical condition going into next season, then los Leones could be a force to be reckoned with.
– The wheels appear to be falling off the wagon for Villarreal’s season. Leading 2-0 against struggling Elche, Unai Emery’s men were all set to get back to winning ways after a dismal spell, overwhelming their regional rivals with a slew of chances and pressure. Gerard Moreno could have had a first-half hat-trick, but instead had to settle for a brace.
However, Moreno came off early in the second half as he’s still shaking off an injury that has seen him miss out on many costly games for his team lately, and as soon as the yellow submarine lost their talisman, they appeared to completely lose their rhythm. Within 20 minutes, Elche had levelled proceedings at 2-2.
It is the fourth consecutive draw for Emery’s team in the league, having been in leading positions for three of them, with the fourth being a 0-0 draw against bottom of the table Huesca. It looks like Champions League qualification is getting further and further out of their reach as Sevilla continue to pick up wins and find their groove again. Not only that, another regional rival, Levante, knocked Villarreal out of the Copa del Rey at the quarter-final stage last week too, with a goal in injury time after extra time to just about avoid penalties and leave the yellow submarine wondering what their season can now amount to.
– Just above Villarreal in the standings, Real Sociedad got back to winning ways with a 4-1 victory over Cádiz, their first league win of 2021. The positive form of Swedish striker Alexander Isak will give the Basques much heart as they look to close in on European qualification again. Isak had been under fire for failing to convert chances, costing his side points, and went between October 29 and December 16 with just one goal. He’s hit back with six goals in nine appearances since that baron spell, showing his club they were right to stick with him and allow Willian José to depart to Wolves in January.
– Joselu decided a massive encounter at the bottom of the season on Friday night, as Deportivo Alavés beat a limp Real Valladolid 1-0. The result sees the victors climb out of the relegation zone, while putting la pucela in the bottom three. Five games without a win leaves Valladolid in a dangerous position.
In this crunch encounter, the Basques wore a special jersey commemorating their centenary.
– Who would have predicted Real Madrid would have won from behind with their goals coming from Raphael Varane? The reigning champions played out an enthralling encounter with bottom of the table Huesca that either side could have won. The home side had enough chances to take a 3-0 lead in the second half but were stopped by the crossbar on two occasions. Both goalkeepers, Álvaro Fernández and Thibaut Courtois, made some brilliant saves, but Madrid eventually crept in front in the match with two goals from the central defenders from a combined distance of possibly three yards, latching onto loose balls after set pieces.
– After a crunching Djené tackle on the ankle of Lucas Ocampos, Julen Lopetegui was furious with the Getafe cohort in the opposite dugout. The Argentine winger had to be taken off injured, while the Togolese defender was given his marching orders, and tensions nearly spilled over between the two managers, seeing them both shown red cards. Munir, Papu Gómez, and En-Neysri ensured the sevillanos took all three points with a 3-0 win.
What a moment for Trincao! 😱
A great strike for his first LaLiga goal and a potential winner in this one for Barca 🔵🔴 pic.twitter.com/oRshe8Cxl3
— Premier Sports 📺 (@PremierSportsTV) February 7, 2021
Goal of the week: Francisco Trincão’s first goal for Barcelona was a hugely important one, handing the blaugrana the win away to Real Betis in the 87th minute. After latching onto a loose ball in the final third, he had no mercy for the ball or Joel Robles in goal, and his thumping strike tipped off the underside of the crossbar and into the net.