When Barcelona and Sevilla’s Copa del Rey semi-final second leg gets underway tonight, it will mean more than most to Ivan Rakitic.
He is a player that has spent the last 10 years split between the two clubs, a six-year spell at Barcelona sandwiching two separate stays in Seville.
At 32, he is still desperately hungry to succeed and will hope to use the knowledge he gained from the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta at Barca to secure a famous victory over his old side.
Ivan Rakitic (right) will come up against his old friends at Barcelona once again on Wednesday
Rakitic has spoken openly about his time at Barca, and learning from Xavi and Andres Iniesta
Should Sevilla make the most of their 2-0 first-leg advantage and get past Ronald Koeman’s side at the Nou Camp, Rakitic will move within 90 minutes of his second trophy at the club, seven years after helping them win the Europa League.
He is a man with plenty of years left in the tank, and his drive to lift trophies remains unwavering. That said, he admits that on his return to Sevilla last summer, he found a club in a very different state to how he had left it six years prior.
‘They’d taken a big step back,’ he says in an interview on LaLigaTV show Talking Football with Guillem Balague – being shown in full 7.30pm on Thursday 4 March – ‘but this stadium and everything overall in Sevilla has grown in recent years. The club has grown, it’s more demanding.
The Croatian (centre) lifted 13 trophies at the Nou Camp, before returning to Sevilla last year
Rakitic has heaped praise on the influence of Unai Emery during his first spell at Sevilla
‘We have to win every game. We have to earn the win every game. It’s important for us to do things very, very well and that’s where I see the culture of the club has changed a lot.’
When he won his first, and so far only, trophy with Sevilla, it was under Unai Emery – a man he still has very fond memories of all these years later.
Following spells with Paris Saint-Germain and Arsenal, the Spaniard is now managing Villarreal back in LaLiga, but his three-straight Europa League titles with Sevilla remains the pinnacle of his coaching career.
‘I had an incredible connection with him,’ Rakitic says of his former manager. ‘I think when we started that season there were 15 or 16 new players and with that came a feeling in the locker room that things were going to happen here.
‘We were lucky to go to the UEFA Cup despite finishing ninth. It was especially important to have a coach like him, who transmitted very well that it wasn’t always the biggest or strongest teams that had to win. We really believed in his philosophy and how he worked, ultimately, it made us really strong.’
Rakitic sat down for an interview with Guillem Balague on LaLiga TV ahead of the Copa del Rey
He speaks very highly of Iniesta (right), who he played with during a dominant spell at Barca
Seven years on and with a very different squad, victory against Barcelona will take Sevilla to their third Copa del Rey final in a decade, the previous two ending in comprehensive defeats by – you guessed it – Barcelona, with Rakitic playing for the LaLiga giants in both.
This one will mean so much to the players and fans, though, with the 2021 final being played in Seville and the potential of Rakitic – the first non-Spanish player to captain the team since Diego Maradona – lifting the trophy in their city.
The Croatian will hope to use his experience to help the team through, and much of that was gained through working with bonafide footballing legends in Catalonia.
‘The hunger they had was incredible,’ he says of the Barcelona side he joined in 2014. ‘I was lucky enough to spend a year working with Xavi, many years with Andres Iniesta and I even built a relationship outside of football with them.
Rakitic speaks of the hunger inside the Barcelona squad, which spurred them to success
When he arrived back at Sevilla, a lot had changed in the six years he had been away
‘I learned from those guys on the field, of course, but especially off the field, seeing them every day made me think ‘There’s a reason they are the best.’
‘I joined a team that was really good, and they knew it. But if I could contribute, even just a little bit to them, my way of experiencing football, of playing it, I knew that I would achieve a lot. How would I do it? Have incredible dedication like they have.’
And they certainly did achieve a lot. Four LaLiga titles, four Copa del Reys and a Champions League were among the 13 trophies Rakitic got his hands on at the Nou Camp, but he is clear in his belief that hard work was behind the success.
‘Those guys weren’t given anything,’ he continues. ‘They earned their success. It’s no coincidence those guys have won it all. Every player had a part to play. Each of them done things their own way, but it’s always to win. We said in Berlin ahead of the Champions League final, ‘With everyone together, no one will beat us.”
Rakitic kisses the forehand of Iniesta as he leaves the pitch for the final time back in May 2018
The Croatian (right) makes fun of Lionel Messi by joking that he will never win Europa League
But there is, of course, one trophy Rakitic has won that Messi hasn’t – and he admits that he has been very keen to laud it over the six-time Ballon d’Or winner.
‘I was speaking to Messi and said, ‘You have won it all, have scored all these goals’, but I told him, I have won a trophy you’ll never have…
‘You’ll never win the Europa League.’
Watch Ivan Rakitic’s full interview on Talking Football with Guillem Balagué this Thursday 4th March at 7.30pm on LaLigaTV, available from just £6.99 a month via Premier Sports and Amazon Prime Video Channels.