Barcelona, Blog, Blog Post, Leagues, Olympiakos, UEFA Champions League

The FC crew agree Barcelona are still in control in La Liga after fighting back for a draw against Atletico Madrid.
Craig Burley and Alexis Nunes predict the outcomes of this week’s UCL fixtures, headlined by Real Madrid versus Tottenham.

Managers don’t hang around at Olympiakos. The Greek side arrived in Barcelona for Wednesday’s Champions League game with Takis Lemonis in charge, but he has only been in the job for 22 days.

He replaced Besnik Hasi, who was sacked in September after a derby defeat against AEK Athens. Hasi had only been given the job in the summer, when he was chosen to replace caretaker coach Vassilis Vouzas, who had just won the Greek title. Vouzas came in on a temporary basis in March after former Portugal coach Paulo Bento’s 37-game spell in charge was ended after three successive league defeats — even though Olympiakos still led the table by seven points.

That 37-game spell is comparable to Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United career when compared with his predecessor, though. Victor Sanchez del Amo lasted just two games. The Spaniard was given the heave-ho after a Champions League qualifying defeat to Hapoel Be’er Sheva.

All of the above has happened the last 14 months. Spot the pattern?

In total, including caretakers, Olympiakos have had 17 managers in the last decade. Lemonis is one of just two of the 17 that has returned for a second bite at the cherry. Few of the others would be welcome back. The only other coach to return was Barcelona’s Ernesto Valverde, and he would be welcome back again if everything goes pear-shaped in Catalonia.

Valverde almost has deity status at the Karaiskakis Stadium. In two separate spells and three seasons in Greece — the first in 2008-09 and the second between 2010 and 2012 — he won two doubles with the club. In the middle of those two doubles, he also won a third Greek league title. Valverde left in 2012 to return home to Spain with an incredible record: 92 wins in 127 games (a win percentage of 72.44 percent).

It didn’t look like his tenure would be that successful from the off, but Valverde’s creativity on the training ground and his man management skills eventually turned things around.

“Valverde made a slow start and was under a lot of pressure,” Greek sports journalist Andreas Kaloterakis told ESPN FC.

“But when the team kicked on, they knocked everyone off the park. Valverde’s [2012] team is still mentioned as the best Olympiakos team of the last decade. All Olympiakos fans still reminisce about his time at the club. The club is in decline nowadays.”

Parallels can be drawn between managing Olympiakos and managing Barca. Despite the constant upheaval on the bench, Olympiakos have still managed to win nine of the last 10 Greek titles. The only one they didn’t win came the year after Valverde left, which is why they were so desperate to get him back after he left the first time. And when they did, he didn’t disappoint.

Valverde returned the club to the top spot after a fifth-place finish, winning back-to-back league titles and satisfying the appetite of a supporter base that, like Barca’s, not only wants to win, but wants to win in a specific style. Both clubs are demanding and it takes a certain type of character to manage those expectations and bring calm.

Life at both clubs can extend beyond the field of play, too. So far at Barca, Valverde’s had to deal with questions concerning a coup against the board, the terrorist attacks in the Catalan city and the current political climate in Spain as Catalonia pursues independence. At Olympiakos, a match against Panathinaikos at the Karaiskakis Stadium ended with the visitors allegedly being attacked by fans.

However, Valverde never indulged the blame game, always took responsibility and earned a reputation for being refreshingly honest — he once even publicly admitted that Olympiakos had scored from an offside position.

Ernesto Valverde is one of the few managers that the notoriously fickle Olympiakos supporters embraced.

“He was always a peaceful man and he never bothered any media with anything outside football,” Kaloterakis remembers.

He’s fondly remembered by those that played under him, too.

“I never really had a chat with [Valverde] before signing but one thing I can say is he was a fantastic coach,’ said English striker Matt Derbyshire, who is currently playing for Cypriot side Omonia, to ESPN FC.

“He knew the style of play he wanted, the type of player he wanted and how to get the best out of the players. There was something new every day in training and as a player that’s what you want because it helps you learn.”

Valverde has won acclaim for his substitutions at Barca already, and Derbyshire came off the bench to be the hero of one of the coach’s most memorable games in Athens, the 2009 Greek Cup final. Olympiakos were trailing AEK Athens 2-0 at halftime, but the former Nottingham Forest and Blackburn Rovers forward came on and scored twice as an exhilarating match ended 4-4. Olympiakos went on to win 15-14 at the end of an exhaustive penalty shootout.

“That cup final was incredible,” Derbyshire adds. “I remember being two down in the first few minutes of the game and we thought that was it. Half-time came and [Valverde] just told me to go and score some goals. For me, that is all I needed from him because that showed me he trusted and relied on me. And that’s what I and the team did. It’s classed as one of the best-ever finals.”

Kaloterakis could see Barca’s philosophy in Valverde’s Olympiakos — a team committed to midfield dominance, possession and high pressing. But it was his second spell and the way he revived a club which had been broken the year before, both on and off the pitch as it underwent a rocky takeover, that remains with the fans. That’s why, to this day, one of the Olympiakos fan groups on Facebook carries the name: “We want Ernesto Valverde back to Olympiakos F.C [sic].”

“Olympiakos is a huge club and it always will be,” Derbyshire said. “I loved the pressure of having to win and so did he — that’s why the fans love him and they always will. They always knew that he could and would bring them titles time after time.”

It’s unlikely they will get Valverde back now (never say never), but they will be reacquainted with their former coach fleetingly on this week at Camp Nou — and again in Athens in two weeks. Camp Nou might even feature a surreal case of the travelling fans being more appreciative of the manager in the home dugout than the home supporters. That could change, though, if Valverde constructs even half the reputation in Catalonia that he left behind in Greece.

Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.

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