After downing Napoli and qualifying for the Champions League Group Stage, Athletic Club made sure there are four Liga BBVA teams in Europe’s premier competition this year. There are many things that make the Biscay club special: their philosophy, San Mamés, loyal fans, and Ernesto Valverde.
The 'Txingurri' (ant in Basque) joined Athletic, for the second time, at the start of the 2013/14 campaign, and emerged from Marcelo Bielsa’s shadow. ‘El Loco’ was in Bilbao for two years and took Bilbao to terrific heights. In his first year at San Mamés the man from Argentina took the club to the final of the Europa League and Copa del Rey. Despite losing both, Bielsa became a darling of the crowd. The 2012/13 season was not as successful, and Valverde took the reigns.
It was the return of the prodigal son, given that Valverde had led Athletic for two seasons previously (between 2003 and 2005). In his first year as a boss at the top level in Spain, Valverde took the side to fifth place, and qualification for the UEFA Cup.
His second year was equally as successful. Despite finishing Liga BBVA in ninth, Athletic got to the last 32 of the UEFA Cup, defeating Standard Liège 1-7 en route. Also, the side lost in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey on penalties to Real Betis Balompié.
After taking a sabbatical, Valverde returned to the dugout, this time at Espanyol. In his first year in Catalonia, ‘el 'Txingurri' took the side to the UEFA Cup final, where they lost to Sevilla on penalties following a 2-2 draw.
Valverde stayed on at Espanyol, and the following season he put together a run of 14 undefeated games that saw the side sit in third place in matchday 18. At the end of the campaign, they finished 12th and Valverde went to try his luck in Greece.
In his first year at Olympiacos FC, Valverde won a Greek league and cup double. After this he decided to return to Spain with Villarreal. His time at the club from Castellón was probably the only time he has not enjoyed success, and was sacked 20 games into the season.
After spending another two years with Olympiacos, when he won another two leagues and one cup, Valverde was appointed boss of Valencia in round 15 of matches in the 2012/13 season. With him in charge, the Ché came back from 10th place to just missing out on fourth in the final game of the season, 4-3 to Sevilla. Despite Valencia’s desire for him to continue, he decided to return home at the start of the 2013/14 campaign.
He did so just as the new San Mamés was opening. Athletic only lost at home twice, and the side finished fourth to earn a spot in the Champions League play-off. They saw off Napoli, and sent their crowd into raptures. He may not have the charisma of a Bielsa, José Mourinho or Josep Guardiola, but it is clear that Valverde is one of the league’s best ‘professors’.