By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Sevilla's Champions League exit to Leicester City may have scuppered Jorge Sampaoli's chances of replacing Barcelona's departing coach Luis Enrique next season, with Ernesto Valverde and Juan Carlos Unzue now seen as the favorites.
The Argentine was widely reported to be among the top candidates to take the vacant Barcelona dugout in the summer along with Athletic Bilbao's Valverde, Everton coach Ronald Koeman and Unzue, Luis Enrique's current assistant.
Sampaoli represents a popular choice among supporters for the thrilling style of play he has served up with Sevilla, but his stock is reported to have fallen with recent results.
Tuesday's 2-0 defeat at Leicester followed disappointing 1-1 draws with Leganes and Alaves which saw Sevilla drift further behind La Liga pace setters Barcelona, and in recent weeks the team look as if they have run out of steam.
Radio Catalunya and Spanish daily Marca reported on Wednesday that Barca's board have ruled Sampaoli out of the running due to his lack of ties to Barcelona, a factor seen as one of the reasons Gerard Martino proved an unsuccessful choice in 2013.
Valverde, a former Barca striker who has enjoyed sustained success in four years with Athletic, is reportedly the number one choice for president Josep Maria Bartomeu and the board due to his ties with the club and his knowledge of La Liga.
Valverde spent two years as a Barcelona forward under the late visionary coach Johan Cruyff and was reportedly offered the role when Tito Vilanova was forced to quit as coach after being diagnosed with cancer in 2013, although he had already committed to take charge of Athletic.
Valverde, who has also taken charge of Espanyol, Valencia and Olympiakos in Greece, led Athletic back to the Champions League after a 16-year absence in his first campaign.
Athletic, who only choose players with ties to the Basque region of Spain, reached the 2015 King's Cup final, losing to Barca, but they exacted revenge with a 5-1 aggregate win in the Spanish Super Cup, their first trophy for 31 years.
Valverde is also admired for his ability to manage squads and egos.
"Ernesto Valverde would fit in perfectly at Barcelona for his style of play and philosophy," said former Athletic goalkeeper Iago Herrerin last month.
"He has very clear ideas and a lot of character. He has managed to make the regular starters and fringe players happy at Athletic, which is the hardest thing to do in football."
Koeman, whose free-kick at Wembley delivered Barca's first ever European Cup in 1992, has been linked due to his strong ties with the club and the success of previous Dutchmen such as Cruyff, Louis Van Gaal and Franck Rijkaard.
Unzue, meanwhile, represents a continuation of the style of Luis Enrique. The former Barca substitute goalkeeper followed Luis Enrique to the Catalan club from Celta Vigo in 2014 and coaches the team in set pieces, although he has no experience in charge of any club.
According to a front page report in Barcelona-based daily Sport on Wednesday, the prospect of appointing Unzue is becoming increasingly more attractive to the board due to his popularity in the Barca dressing room.
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Gareth Jones)