BARCELONA (Reuters) - Luis Enrique is set to leave a mixed legacy when he departs Barcelona but the coach can go out on a high by lifting a third consecutive King’s Cup when his side meet Alaves in Saturday’s final in Madrid.
The former Barca midfielder enjoyed a dream start to life in the Nou Camp dugout, winning the treble in his first season and a league and cup double in his second. But his team have declined in his third campaign, leading Enrique to opt against renewing his contract and announcing his exit in March.
The cup final, which will be the last competitive game at Atletico Madrid’s Vicente Calderon stadium, is their last chance to salvage a season in which they surrendered the title to Real Madrid and fell out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals, suffering a resounding 3-0 aggregate defeat to Juventus.
It has still been an unforgettable season, however, with Barca beating their previous goals record in the league by scoring 116 times and overturning a four-goal deficit against Paris St Germain in the Champions League by winning 6-1.
“It hasn’t been a failure, although it’s not the season we would have wanted,” defender Gerard Pique told reporters on Wednesday. “Saturday’s game offers us the chance to win another trophy to add to the Spanish Super Cup, and every trophy we can win and put in our museum is good for us.”
One of the first warning signs of the decline came from Saturday’s opponents Alaves, who stunned Barca by winning 2-1 at the Nou Camp back in September just a month into their first season back in Spain’s top flight for a decade.
Enrique’s side are strong favourites to win the final, however, which would deliver a ninth trophy overall for him as Barca coach, even though he will be without striker Luis Suarez and rightback Sergi Roberto through suspension.
Alaves, coached by a former Barca teammate of Luis Enrique’s in Mauricio Pellegrino, spent the season’s first half hovering above relegation places but ended the campaign strongly, winning three of their final four games to finish ninth in the table.
Their impressive campaign has been based on clever loan signings such as midfielder Marcos Llorente from Real Madrid and explosive leftback Theo Hernandez, who is set to move from Atletico Madrid to Real later this summer, and experienced Liga players such as Victor Camarasa and top scorer Deyverson.
“We’re a difficult team to face, we have a very competitive squad and a group of players who are very persistent,” Pellegrino told Spanish daily Marca.
“We’re a team that’s going places and do the simple things very well. We’re humble but we’re capable of taking teams on and competing by playing to our strengths.”
Reporting by Richard Martin; editing by Mark Heinrich