Lopetegui lifting Porto to new heights
The Basque country, straddling Spain's north-west border with France, is home to some idiosyncratic sports. There is pelota, a little like squash except, in its pure form, you project a hard ball with lightly bandaged palms instead of with a racquet. Go a bit more rural and there is an even more manly event: stone-lifting, a contest to find the local Obelix, quite a spectacle when he's heaving rocks against the clock.
Jose Antonio Lopetegui Aranguren ranks as a legend of the discipline. He would draw crowds in villages well into his fifties. At his peak, he registered 22 lifts of a 100-kilogram stone within a minute. Jose Lopetegui is now in his mid-80s, retired from his peculiar form of clean and jerk. As of last Wednesday, he can declare he is not the only proven heavyweight of the family.
Julen Lopetegui, son of Jose Antonio, is head coach of Porto, who will tomorrow night become the Asterix and Obelix of the 2015 Champions League if they complete the task set in compelling motion in the first leg of their quarter-final against Bayern Munich. The second best team in Portugal go to the home of the Bundesliga's champions and soaraway league leaders 3-1 up and with their Spanish manager 90 minutes from being celebrated as a cannier negotiator of Europe's most prestigious club competition than any of the many Porto coaches post: Jose Mourinho.
The club have not reached a semi-final in the 11 years since Mourinho brought the trophy to Oporto.
Lopetegui, 48, had an up-and-down playing career. Identified in his teens as next baton-carrier for a long line of very fine Basque goalkeepers, he joined Real Madrid's youth set-up and later won a cap for Spain. He then endured a frustrating spell at the Barcelona of Johan Cruyff and Bobby Robson in the Nineties, injured for periods, a back-up for most of the time. He made some enduring friendships at Camp Nou, though, including that of Pep Guardiola, now in charge at Bayern. The relationship developed as they moved into coaching. Lopetegui managed Spain's national youth teams, with great success, while Guardiola was in charge of Barcelona's reserve and then first-team, so they liaised often.
Last month, the two men sat together, chatty, in Madrid's Vicente Calderon stadium to watch Atletico beat Bayer Leverkusen in the last-16 stage of the European Cup. Within 48 hours, Guardiola and Lopetegui learned they would be in opposition, for the first time as managers, in the next round. So Lopetegui began plotting: how to have his men press up aggressively on Bayern's centre-halves, how to worry Bayern on the counter-attack, and how to ensure the muscular striker Jackson Martinez eased back from injury in time for the first leg.
"He deserves every congratulation," Guardiola said of how Porto's coach had organised their coup and for what was evidently an assured half-time gee-up from Lopetegui. Bayern, 2-0 down early at the Dragao, had finished the opening 45 minutes stronger, and reduced the deficit to a single goal.
Porto then regained their two-goal advantage and their poise.
There is already a long, loud list of Bayern recriminations for the shock defeat - senior members of the club's medical staff resigned after they sensed they had been blamed for the defeat - and of excuses: the maladroit displays of defenders, Dante and Jerome Boateng, the absence of injured wingers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery. Less amplified has been praise for Lopetegui, and his galvanising what the youngest squad in Porto's recent history, a unit largely put together in the last ten months, and as the scorer of two of the first-leg goals, Ricardo Quaresma, put it, a "team without superstars".
Any coach who can draw a tune consistently from Quaresma ought to gain the admiration of his peers. The 31-year-old winger, scorer of two of Porto's goals, has on his resume of employers a Who's Who of Champions League winners - Barcelona, Chelsea, Internazionale - but was never a regular contributor to any of their triumphs. "We have asked more of Ricardo this season," Lopetegui said.
Safe to report that Quaresma, deft dribbler and occasional launcher of spectacular strikes from distance, is not one of the game's sturdy stone-lifters. But Lopetegui has stimulated something. He made a significant, one-off gesture of faith in the enigmatic Quaresma at the very beginning of the season, by giving him the captain's armband.
The Porto coach needed his senior players to act as seniors. Many of their younger colleagues are very obviously passing through, sights set elsewhere. This is a club of high turnover, which scouts effectively, particularly in South America, and makes a major sale most summers. Porto have guaranteed themselves that this year with the scheduled £24m transfer of the Brazilian full-back Danilo to Real Madrid.
Other contributors to their rousing Champions League run are borrowed. The midfield gains much of its energy from the on-loan Casemiro, 23 and owned by Real Madrid, and Oliver Torres, 20, from Atletico Madrid. Eliminate Bayern and there is a fair chance of Porto meeting either Casemiro or Torres's parent club in the semi-final, or playing Barcelona, who have lent them the winger Cristian Tello, 23. Tello, out of the Bayern tie with injury, hopes to recover by next month.
Eliminate Bayern, and Lopetegui's own reputation will rise. This is his first full season as a senior coach of a top-flight club, and although Porto trail Benfica by three points in the domestic table - the clubs meet next weekend - the achievements of their Champions League journey, from topping their group, to blitzing Basel 5-1 on aggregate, to outfoxing Guardiola's Bayern make for a sound portfolio for a manager new to the competition.
Hence the murmurs that have him short-listed by Real Madrid as a prospective next boss at the Bernabeu. Lopetegui says he is committed, long-term, to Porto. He told the newspaper As: "This is not a trampoline job for me," and promising three more years of carefully lifting the right foundation stones into place. (© Daily Telegraph, London)