Valverde is managing Athletic Club for a third time and this Sunday faces former club Barcelona, where he won the La Liga title in 2017/18 and in 2018/19.
One of the most historic fixtures in Spanish football and will take place in a different setting from usual, at the Estadi Olímpic in Montjuïc.
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 26 matches between Athletic Club and Barcelona, managing the Basque side in 21 of them and the Catalan side on five occasions.
Both Athletic Club and Barca made Valverde the man he is today
During his playing career, Valverde also played for both these clubs. He played as a forward for Barca 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 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 Espanyol or Olympiacos, that he earned the Barcelona job after Luis Enrique left.
Valverde was coach when Espanyol played at Montjuic
Valverde was the boss of Espanyol in the 2006/07 and 2007/08 seasons, managing Los Pericos at a time when they played at the Estadi Olimpic in Montjuic. This is the venue for this upcoming Barcelona vs Athletic Club duel, given that Barca are temporarily playing in Montjuïc as redevelopment work takes place on the Camp Nou.
The coach enjoyed a lot of success at Espanyol, especially in his first season as he led the team to the UEFA Cup final. Their victories at the Estadi Olimpic against clubs such as Maccabi Haifa, Benfica and Werder Bremen are still remembered fondly by fans of the Catalan club.
Two La Liga titles as coach of Barcelona
Almost a decade later, Valverde had the unenviable task of taking over at Barca just as they had surrendered the 2016/17 title to Real Madrid. This was a period, lest we forget, when Gerard Pique declared after a Spanish Super Cup defeat to Los Merengues that it was the first time in almost 10 years that he felt Barca were inferior to Real Madrid.
But, under Valverde’s quiet but firm leadership, Barca quickly re-asserted themselves as the top side in Spain, romping to consecutive La Liga titles in 2017/18 and 2018/19, leaving Real Madrid and Atletico 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 Barcelona season undefeated in La Liga, only losing in their 37th match of the campaign, against Levante.
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 Barcelona only realised how good things were under Valverde once he was gone.
Since departing the 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 Sebastian.
Valverde’s return to management
In the summer of 2022, he returned to the San Mames 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 set their sights set on qualifying for Europe and are currently in fifth place. Los Leones have not competed in Europe for six 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 in to 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. Not only did he take Espanyol all the way to the 2006/07 UEFA Cup final, but he also enjoyed countless memorable European nights as coach of Olympiacos, who he also led to three domestic titles in as many seasons.
Wherever he goes, Valverde guarantees consistency and success. Barcelona’s loss is now Athletic Club’s gain and their paths will cross again on Sunday.
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