Ernesto Valverde, the last coach to lead Barcelona to a Spanish league title, will make his first return to Camp Nou on Sunday in charge of Athletic Bilbao.
Valverde was fired by Barcelona in January 2020 despite having won two consecutive league titles and with the team top of the standings. In 2 1/2 seasons, the mild-mannered Valverde was lauded for keeping Barcelona above Real Madrid in Spain despite the departure of Neymar, but his team’s performances in knockout competitions led to his downfall.
Under Valverde, Barcelona had stunning collapses in the Champions League — a 4-0 defeat at Liverpool in 2019 and a 3-0 reverse at Roma in 2018 — and a 2-1 loss in the 2019 Copa del Rey final to Valencia. The club took the decision to let him go after a 3-2 loss to Atletico in the Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia.
But Barcelona has only endured bigger frustrations since Valverde was shown the door.
Quiqué Setién, the former Real Betis coach who replaced Valverde, lasted a few months. Barcelona quickly lost its lead of the Spanish league under Setién before hitting rock bottom with a historic 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich that marked an end to the club’s glory years.
Ronald Koeman could only manage a Copa del Rey title in 2021, the last title won by Lionel Messi before he left when the club’s financial problems prevented them from retaining its greatest star. Three months after Messi walked away to Paris Saint-Germain, Koeman was fired.
In came Xavi Hernández, who a year later is feeling the pressure after a recent 3-1 loss at Real Madrid and what looks like another flop in the Champions League.
After taking a long sabbatical from coaching, Valverde returned to where he is loved the most: Bilbao.
When Valverde traded Bilbao for Barcelona in 2017 he had already coached the largest number of games in the history of the Basque club.
Back for a third stint with Bilbao, the 58-year-old former forward has the team playing well again. Bilbao, which only has players from the Basque regions of northern Spain and southwest France, has only two losses in 10 games this season. It sits sixth in the Spanish league following a 2-2 draw at Getafe.
Valverde said that his players will need to make the most of their opportunities to upset Barcelona, which is in second place and three points behind leader Real Madrid.
“Even when they play poorly, they still create six clear scoring chances, so we are expecting a difficult rival,” Valverde said.
Brothers Iñaki and Nico Williams have combined for seven goals for Bilbao this season, and former veteran Ander Herrera has returned to help a midfield that also features playmaker Iker Muñiain. Spain goalkeeper Unai Simón anchors its defense.
The top priority of Bilbao will be stopping Robert Lewandowski. The former Bayern striker has scored 16 times in 14 total appearances and leads the Spanish league with 11 goals in 10 rounds.
“(Lewandowski) is insatiable,” Xavi said after his striker struck twice in a 3-0 win over Villarreal on Thursday. “He is a killer. He sees the angles, finds space. He is a great striker.”
Xavi may rotate his squad, as he did against Villarreal, with Barcelona hosting Bayern on Wednesday and needing to win to keep alive its scant options to avoid a humbling exit from the Champions League group stage for a second consecutive year.
Real Madrid hosts Sevilla on Saturday aiming to extend its unbeaten streak this season across all competitions to 16 games.
Real Sociedad is in third place before it visits Valladolid on Saturday. A win by Sociedad would pull it level on points with Barcelona.