Would Barcelona domestic clean sweep earn Ernesto Valverde more time?
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On the face of it, Ernesto Valverde is doing an admirable job as Barcelona manager. The Spanish tactician’s delivered four trophies since taking over the reins two years ago. Delve a little deeper, though, and all isn’t so upbeat at Camp Nou. Barca’s devastating eliminations in the Champions League act as a dark cloud hovering Valverde’s head.
Barcelona comfortably retained their La Liga crown this campaign. They secured the honour with three games to spare before finishing 11 points above second-placed Atletico Madrid and basking in a 19-point advantage over fierce foes Real. In a competition where three teams have a realistic chance of topping the pile, Valverde’s men proved without doubt the dominant force, picking up 10 points in this season’s contests against their two Madrid threats.
Barca’s league form has been on display in domestic cups, too. In August, they overcame Sevilla 2-1 to win the Supercopa de Espana. Now, having navigated their way through to the Copa del Rey final, Blaugrana target victory over Valencia to accomplish a Spanish clean sweep.
However, rightly or wrongly, due to their immense standing, Barcelona’s success is mostly judged on performance in Europe. Pep Guardiola is partly responsible for that. In winning two Champions Leagues, the Catalan-born coach arguably created the greatest club side in history. Three years after his departure, Luis Enrique masterminded another European conquest. It all left Valverde with a lot to emulate.
But repeat such success he hasn’t. Up to now at least. Under the 55-year-old’s leadership, Barca have suffered humiliating capitulations on the continent, beginning in Rome and haunting them to Anfield. Last campaign, despite taking what should have been an unassailable 4-1 lead to the Stadio Olimpico, Blaugrana crumbled to exit at Champions League last eight stage. If that Roma nightmare wasn’t enough, worst was yet to come. After beating Liverpool 3-0 at home and seemingly guaranteeing their semi-final place, Valverde’s charges fell apart in the return leg, conceding four times without reply.
Cules supporters were understandably angry. Following the Anfield collapse, #ValverdeOut went trending on Twitter. How could this happen not just once, but twice? Barcelona’s under-fire boss couldn’t provide the answer either, telling reporters, ‘it is what it is.’ He later expanded on that by saying, ‘I don’t know how this affects my future. But here we are and the coach has to take responsibility.’ Perhaps the words of a man nearing his own demise.
Should that be the case, there are more than a few worthy contenders to jump in Valverde’s seat. Quique Setien is among the leading candidates at present. The veteran coach guided Real Betis to a top-half position this season, in which he oversaw an impressive 4-3 victory at Camp Nou. Other possibilities include Belgium boss Roberto Martinez, as well as Barca legends Ronald Koeman and Xavi Hernandez. The latter has recently spoken of his desire to one day manage the Catalan giants.
All is not lost for Valverde, though. He has retained support from within the dressing room, with reports indicating Lionel Messi considers him the right person to lead Blaugrana into next campaign. Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu is on the same wavelength; that’s according to Spanish football journalist Guillem Balague who told his Youtube channel, ‘Bartomeu wants Valverde to stay and has said so publicly.’
However, Balague did go on to say, ‘But it is also the case that a bad defeat to Valencia (Copa del Rey final) may change things.’ This one game, then, could decide Valverde’s future. Should it be the end of him, many supporters would no doubt believe it’s in their team’s best interest. Throughout his tenure, Valverde has been accused of adopting a negative approach - particularly in crucial European away matches. A sin in fans’ eyes. Barcelona aren’t built that way.
In tonight’s Copa del Rey final, Barca will start as clear favourites to see off Valencia. Lifting the trophy would mean Valverde is likely to get one more crack next season. Some will say his domestic success has earned it. Others won’t be so sure. Either way, until he finds a Champions League formula, questions will continue to be asked of him.