By Richard Martin
BARCELONA, Oct 17 (Reuters) – Ernesto Valverde was seen as an unglamorous choice as Barcelona coach in place of Luis Enrique, yet in winning nine of his first 10 games he is turning out to be an inspired selection.
His fine start at the club will come as no surprise to Greek giants Olympiakos, who face Barcelona in the Champions League on Wednesday and where Valverde is revered for his achievements in two separate spells in charge.
The Spanish coach, nicknamed “the ant”, won the Greek title in each of his three years at Olympiakos and lifted the domestic cup twice, giving the club a rare sense of stability.
Since his second departure in 2012, they have had 11 coaches.
“It’s very exciting to play against Olympiakos,” Valverde told a news conference on Tuesday.
“It will be even more special when we play over there. It’s a stadium where I had so many great moments. I was treated very well there. It’s a club that is accustomed to winning.”
Olympiakos head to Barcelona in the midst of a crisis, however, sitting fifth in the Greek standings, which they have won for nine of the past 10 years.
They reappointed former coach Takis Lemonis four months after parting ways with him, his successor Besnik Hasi having been sacked barely a month into the season.
Coaches at Olympiakos are expected to win the league and even if they do, it is often not enough to prevent them from getting the sack, which is why Valverde’s elevated status at the club speaks so highly of his impact.
“Ernesto Valverde was like a God at Olympiakos,” former player Moises Hurtado told Spanish newspaper Marca.
Valverde had enjoyed moderate success at Athletic Bilbao and Espanyol before landing the Olympiakos job in 2008 and in his first season collected his first pieces of silverware as a coach by winning the double.
The team sealed it after one of the most memorable cup finals in Greek history, a derby with fierce local rivals AEK Athens. Valverde’s side fell behind to two early goals but drew 4-4, setting up an enthralling penalty shootout, which Olympiakos won 15-14.
English striker Matt Derbyshire, who came off the bench to score two goals in the final, remembered Valverde’s direct team talk.
“He 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,” Derbyshire told ESPN.
“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’s achievements at Olympiakos can also be gauged by what happened the year after he left.
They sank to fifth in the league and worked through five coaches, including caretakers, in little more than a year before begging Valverde to return.
Olympiakos quickly reclaimed the title in his first season back and retained it in 2012, also winning the cup, and the team is remembered as the best side they have had in the last decade.
“After the first spell he didn’t want to return but the president wanted him so much that he flew by helicopter and plane to convince him,” said Hurtado.
“He won trophies but he also developed a very exciting and happy style of play which was very attacking. He has no ego and doesn’t want to hog the limelight. That’s something which is greatly admired over there.
“When he comes back (with Barcelona in two weeks’ time) everyone will see how much they love him.” (Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Ed Osmond, Neville Dalton)