Barcelona target Valverde faces key audition against fearsome Madrid

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Of all the names that have circulated regarding the soon-to-be
vacant coaching role at Barcelona, Jorge Sampaoli and Ernesto
Valverde’s are by far the most discussed. The latter, supported
by three years of sterling work at Athletic, now has the chance
to prove he has the big-name mettle to go with his growing
reputation as he attempts to do his prospective new employers a
huge favour by taking down none other than Real Madrid. 

While in recent years La Masia has taken all the headlines, the
tiny Basque village of Lezama still remains synonymous with
the cantera concept. The term, which
literally translates as ‘quarry’ and refers to the digging up
of youth talent, is paid lip service at Barcelona but, at
Athletic, it is a simple matter of survival. Every weekend
scores of young Basque hopefuls teem the fields of the club’s
academy hoping to win their place in a club that has few other
options when it comes to bolstering their squad. 

Valverde’s team continue to stick to a principle that dates
back to the 1950s, only picking players that were born in the
fiercely nationalist region. That policy has, admittedly, been
watered down somewhat over the years but it is a deliberate
handicap to which Athletic proudly cling, some 30 years after
rivals Real Sociedad abandoned their own localist creed with
the signing of John Aldridge.

Atletico to
learn from Sevilla

The San Mames club and Mexico’s Chivas, forbidden from fielding
anyone but academy players, stand as two marvellous anomalies
in the globalised, hyper-commercial world of modern football.
And thanks to an unstinting commitment to youth production and
some inspired coaching, they continue to punch well above their

Valverde knows what that tradition means. Born in Extremadura
but raised in Vitoria when his parents moved to the Basque
Country, the former forward began his playing career at Alaves
and had a brief spell with Barcelona before finding his
spiritual home at San Mames.

Upon retiring he entered Lezama as a youth coach and worked his
way up to head of Bilbao Athletic, the feeder team; his journey
would then take him to two spectacular stints in Greece with
Olympiacos, and less impressive forays at Villarreal and
Valencia closer to home. 

Valverde PS

When Athletic came knocking following the resignation of
Marcelo Bielsa, who took the club reins for two action-packed
years that included a Europa League final, Valverde did not
hesitate. In his first season he took the Basques to a
brilliant fourth place and the Champions League, while only
Barcelona and the unplayable Lionel Messi stood in the way of
Copa del Rey glory back in 2014-15 as the little Argentine tore
Athletic apart. 

This season Valverde’s men are seventh, and breathing heavily
down the neck of Villarreal and Real Sociedad for a Europa
League spot. Considering the relative budgets and, of course,
the restrictions on transfer policy his work is nothing short
of miraculous, and if Athletic at least maintain their standing
by the end of the season they will mark four years continually
ranking amongst the best seven teams in La Liga. 

Barca and
Real the losers in CL draw

It is not the coach’s results, however, that would be the
clincher in moving to Barcelona. With La Masia failing to push
out the talent of yesteryear and the Catalans evermore reliant
on expensive imports, Valverde is seen as the man to go back to
basics and kick-start the academy as he has done in Lezama.
Indeed, the 53-year-old has already notched two important
firsts in his time in Bilbao. 

Inaki Williams, born in Bilbao to Ghanaian and Liberian
parents, became the first black player to score for Athletic
when he hit the net against Torino in February 2015. His
team-mate, the highly rated Aymeric Laporte, in turn became the
first French Basque to graduate from Lezama to the club first
team, and while Bielsa handed him his debut, it was Valverde
that gave the youngster a regular place in his starting

“I have never been afraid to bring up players from the youth
teams, if they are good enough,” Valverde told reporters
shortly after taking over in 2013 for his second stint on the
bench. “In my first spell we brought up a lot of players for
economic reasons and we did not sign anyone for two years!”

Indeed, in his six years at San Mames the coach has handed 24
home-grown players their debut, 22 of which have come straight
from Lezama. Those numbers must be encouraging to those in
charge at Camp Nou, who have seen precious few players from La
Masia establish themselves since that golden era of Andres
Iniesta et al which now appears as a distant memory. 

Tielemans a
threat to United’s EL hopes

Will Barcelona land their man? Reports indicate that after four
seasons Valverde has become somewhat disillusioned with the
failure to push Athletic up amongst the elite of Spanish
football. Early exits in the Copa del Rey and Europa League
this season have also soured the mood at San Mames.

But the coach will not burn any bridges at his beloved
Athletic. “I do not know where I will end up, but of course
what I do not want is for Athletic to push me out, or make an
acrimonious exit,” he affirmed recently to reporters. 

Valverde PS

With Sampaoli apparently having fallen down the pecking order
following his Sevilla side’s tame defeat at the hands of
Leicester, Valverde (who is out of contract in June this
year) and Luis Enrique’s current assistant, Juan Carlos
Unzue, are touted in the Spanish press as the Asturian’s most
likely successors. Unzue’s fate will hang on the performances
Barca put in during these last crucial months of the campaign,
while the Athletic man must first decide his future at the
Basques before moving on.

Last week, Athletic president Jose Urrutia revealed that a
final decision was imminent, hanging on a pending chat with
Valverde: “Whatever comes out of that conversation will be made
public and we will say whether Ernesto is the coach or if
another person will be. We will see what happens with him.”

Yaya Toure
open to Man Utd move

Whatever occurs in the coming weeks, one thing is not in doubt.
Real Madrid’s visit to San Mames will be getting more attention
than ever from their Catalan rivals, and not just in
anticipation of possible dropped points that would give Barca’s
intermittent Liga campaign a welcome boost. 

Valverde is already a favourite of the Camp Nou administration,
who went looking for him after both Pep Guardiola and Gerardo
Martino parted company with the club. But a win over Madrid on
Saturday would heighten his chances of landing on the bench
immeasurably, installing him once and for all as Luis Enrique’s
inevitable successor.

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