Rubén Pipo Baraja, alongside Míchel Sánchez and Xavi García Pimienta, is one of the emerging coaches in LaLiga EA Sports 2023-24. The Valladolid native played a significant role last year, turning around a struggling Valencia and securing their position in the league amidst challenges. He laid the foundations for the current team, the youngest in the championship, packed with young players whom he debuted during tough times for the club. This team now aims for European positions. It seems he found the perfect place for himself, a club he knows inside out due to his earlier success as a player. Before that, he had experienced more lows than highs on the coaching front.
For instance, during the 2019-20 season, amidst the pandemic, Baraja was at CD Tenerife, but did not continue into the following season. During his tenure as Tenerife’s coach, he had the opportunity to train Javi Muñoz, who is now a player for UD Las Palmas, having joined on loan from Deportivo Alavés in the winter transfer window. Muñoz played a total of 13 games under Pipo, mostly as a substitute. He was not the footballer he is today. Tonight, player and coach will meet again on the field.
They met in the first-leg clash at Mestalla, back in August 2023, when an incident involving Muñoz led to a penalty awarded by VAR, which was converted by Pepelu, resulting in the only goal of the match.
Tonight marks his first visit to the Estadio de Gran Canaria as a top-flight coach, a ground he visited in his playing days four times, once with Atlético de Madrid’s reserve team, once with the first team, and twice with Valencia. He never lost, drawing twice and winning twice.
The latter two visits were during Las Palmas’ two-season stint in the topflight from 2000 to 2002. In the first season, playing under Héctor Cúper, Baraja featured in the entire match in Valencia’s 2-0 victory at the now-extinct Estadio Insular, with goals from Juan Sánchez and Pablo Aimar, the latter from a direct free-kick past Jarni who was in goal due to the expulsion of Nacho González. That season, Valencia would lose the Champions League final to Bayern Munich on penalties at San Siro.
The following season, under Rafa Benítez, Pipo was substituted in the 87th minute in Valencia’s solitary goal victory, also at the Ciudad Jardín. Months later, the team including the likes of Cañizares, Ayala, Djukic, Carboni, Angulo, and Kily González would win the La Liga title.
Rubén Baraja has fond memories of Gran Canaria. It remains to be seen what his first record will be as a top-flight coach at Siete Palmas. For now, he has secured a draw, in the 2020 derby. Valencia Mestalla, Elche, Rayo Vallecano, Tenerife, and Zaragoza served as stepping stones that led him to Valencia, where Pipo has already made a name for himself.