Barcelona target Valverde faces key audition against fearsome Madrid

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The Athletic boss' brilliant record with the club academy has made him a top target for the Catalans, and now he takes on their biggest rivals


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.

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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 weight. 

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

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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 line-up. 

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"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. 

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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."

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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.