For Sevilla manager Julen Lopetegui, the Europa League last-16 tie against West Ham offers the latest chance to pit his wits against an English team and one of the Premier League’s most experienced managers.
The Andalusians, second in La Liga and winners of this competition in four of the past eight years, will be favorites to advance against David Moyes’ team in a competition they have dominated since its rebrand in 2009-10.
It is an important game for the 55-year-old Spaniard for all sorts of reasons, among them the fact it gives him a chance to impress any watching Premier League club owners.
Just before accepting the job as Spain manager in 2016, Lopetegui was on the verge of joining a then newly acquired Wolverhampton Wanderers looking to return to the Premier League.
That move did not materialize but these days every time there is a vacancy in the Premier League his name is mentioned, and it is well known – although he refuses to confirm it – that last summer he was offered the job as Tottenham Hotspur manager before it was eventually given to Nuno Espirito Santo.
He is also thought to be one of the names on a very exclusive shortlist for the upcoming job as Manchester United boss.
Asked about the constant speculation over his future and a move to the Premier League, he tells BBC Sport: “As a coach you can’t control this situation. You can only control your daily work. Of course you have your dreams and ambitions, and of course the Premier League is a very important competition.
“I had the chance to go to the Premier League in the summer but decided to stay here because at this moment I am where I want to be.”
But realistically it certainly seems only a matter of time before he joins a Premier League club.
“We really don’t know where we will be in one or two years,” he says.
“But of course I have to say the Premier League is a fantastic aim for all the coaches. I feel that at some time in the future it is possible I could end up there, but the only thing that concerns me now is the present with Sevilla.
“I am very happy here. I have a huge commitment to this club and I don’t have the energy to focus on anything else at the moment.”
Sacked by Spain, misery in Madrid – Lopetegui’s difficult journey
Having established himself as a rock in the Spanish national coaching set-up, taking charge of the country’s U19, U20 and U21 sides between 2010 and 2014, he left for Porto but endured an unsuccessful time in Portugal.
But his history with the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RSSF) was enough for them to offer him the role of Spain manager, meaning he declined Wolves’ advances in order to lead his country towards the 2018 World Cup.
What followed was a 14-match unbeaten run with Spain and they headed to the tournament in Russia with high hopes. What could possibly go wrong?
Well just about everything, as it turned out. With the team already in Russia it was announced that Lopetegui would be taking control of Real Madrid on a three-year deal once the World Cup was concluded.
Luis Rubiales, the newly appointed RSSF president, was incandescent and promptly fired him, just 48 hours before Spain kicked off their tournament.
The words ‘cut’, ‘nose’, ‘spite’ and ‘face’ spring to mind. No-one was surprised when a rudderless, uninspired Spain side slunk out of Russia after a penalty shootout defeat against the hosts in the last 16.
Things began badly for him at Real Madrid and then proceeded to get worse. A 4-2 defeat by Atletico Madrid in the Uefa Super Cup was not a great start to his time di lui at the Bernabeu, and while he was working to change the style and settle on a favored line-up, Real Madrid lost six of the next 14 games.
When they lost 5-1 to Barcelona at the Nou Camp in the October, Lopetegui received his marching orders.
Lesser mortals would have succumbed to the pressure. But he was only out of work for around seven months and, when he reflects now, he is philosophical about what happened.
“Did I lose confidence? Never!” he says. “You always review your career with the good and bad experiences and that is the only way to gain more knowledge and to improve.
“I don’t regret any of my past experiences, because in the end you are going to do things your way.”
Salvation with Sevilla
Redemption would come via the efforts of another former back-up goalkeeper, Ramon Rodriguez Verdejo, know to the world as Monchi, almost certainly the canniest and most capable deal-maker in the history of La Liga.
He had revitalized Sevilla’s fortunes in the transfer market and now turned his talents to bringing in the right coach as well as the right players.
While many questioned the appointment, Monchi was adamant. “He’s the coach that, looking at the market, gives us the most confidence for the objectives we have in mind,” he said. “I must be the odd one out because the only thing I see is that I’m going to win.”
In Lopetegui’s first season, Sevilla finished fourth to qualify for the Champions League, and then defeated Inter Milan 3-2 in the 2020 Europa League final to win his first club honor.
Once again Monchi had been vindicated. And he continues to be.
Sevilla are currently second in La Liga, eight points behind Real Madrid but seven clear of the chasing pack led by Barcelona. That is nothing short of miraculous bearing in mind the squad has been ravaged by injuries this season and Covid has also had a big impact.
Key center-back Diego Carlos missed the recent trip to Alaves, as did Fernando, Gonzalo Montiel and Papu Gomez. Those absences add to the other injury issues Sevilla are experiencing, with Karim Rekik, Suso, Erik Lamela and Anthony Martial all out.
“It’s true we have had a lot of problems with injuries in key positions, and also a lot of problems with Covid,” said Lopetegui. “But we are focused on the need to look for a different solution.
“We are always looking to try to find the players that can improve us. We have had our problems but the most important thing is that we have overcome them as a team. For me, the strength of the team is more important than that of one, two, three or four players. “
Sevilla have only won La Liga once in their history, way back in 1946, and while their more optimistic fans dream of bringing it home for a second time, Lopetegui takes a much more pragmatic view.
“We never look towards the next title,” he says. “Our aim is always on the next game. In football the only target you ever really have is the next game. That is always the most important thing.
“Both in La Liga and in the Premier League it is always difficult for different reasons. A team fighting for relegation will always make it difficult.”
The challenge facing West Ham
Sevilla have lost the same number of games in La Liga this season as Real Madrid (two) and have the meanest defense in the league, having conceded 18 times in 27 games, three fewer than the leaders.
But their flaws were highlighted in Friday’s goalless draw against relegation contenders Alaves – the 10th time this season Sevilla have drawn in the league. It is their failure to convert draws into wins that has stopped them staying closer to Real Madrid.
With just 39 goals scored, they have only the seventh-best goal return in the league and have drawn six of their past 13 games as a result.
So what can West Ham expect and does Sevilla’s European pedigree give them the advantage?
“I think we are now at the key moment of the season,” says Lopetegui. “We are now going to have two really hard games against West Ham.
“The past is not important. If you win today it is not about the past but more about your merits today. Of course, one of our dreams is the Europa League and now we face a very big opponent in West Ham, who are one of the form teams in the Premier League and our main focus is to beat them over two games. After that we will see what the next battle will be. “
He certainly sees the match as much closer than some experts are predicting.
“What I’m sure is that we are going to see a very tough couple of games,” he adds. “I think it will be very close. We both have different players, different styles – but in the end we both have good players and good teams.”