Football: Valencia put faith in lethal skills of Lopez

Richard Williams expects the little Argentinian to be a big threat to United at Old Trafford tonight

IT WAS just about the best moment of the season so far, in terms of skill applied under pressure, but the television didn't even show a replay of the work Claudio Lopez accomplished to create the opening goal in Valencia's Champions' League match against Bordeaux two weeks ago.

Gerard, the young Spanish midfielder, started it off, with an interception in the 61st minute. Stretching out his leg, he diverted a pass from Bordeaux's Francois Grenet into the path of Lopez, who was moving into the inside- left position. Lopez controlled it with the outside of his left foot, beating Nisa Saveljic in the same movement. Then he stopped and looked up, noting Kily Gonzalez moving to his left and Adrian Ilie to his right.

When Kodjo Afanou closed in to make a challenge, Lopez used his left foot again, to bring the ball across his own body, swivelling away from the tackle with elegance and economy of movement. A sudden spurt brought him to within five yards of the penalty area. As he accelerated and straightened his run, he stroked the ball to Francisco Farinos, 10 yards away to his right, inviting the return pass. Instead, profiting from the momentary hesitation in the defence caused by his team-mate's explosive movement, Farinos struck a left-footed shot from 25 yards across Ulrich Rame and inside the angle of the bar and the far post.

And Lopez wasn't finished. In the 69th minute he started on a similar run from left to right, taking Grenet and Afanou with him, leaving only Saveljic to counter the far-post runs of Ilie and Gaizca Mendieta. This time Lopez carried the run further. When he used his right foot to chip the ball back across the goalmouth and over the sole defender, Ilie was there to ram it home.

The single instant touch with which he sent Gonzalez in for Valencia's third and final goal in the last minute of the match was stunning in its simplicity and efficiency. Gonzalez, wide on the left, flicked the ball to Lopez who, barely moving, used the outside of his left foot to flick it back into his path. Gonzalez swung his foot and the ball was rippling the roof of the net with Rame helpless once more.

Not surprisingly, Claudio Lopez is among the 55 players from whom France Football will choose the European player of the year. His achievements in the past 12 months have made him a target for more glamorous clubs. Yet of all the superstars thronging the continent's major teams, the 25- year-old Argentinian is probably the least known to English fans, despite taking part in the tumultuous World Cup match in St-Etienne 18 months ago.

Although he was by then firmly established as the preferred partner for Gabriel Batistuta, Lopez didn't achieve a great deal in that game. By the time the penalties came round, he had been substituted. He was on the losing side in the quarter-final, but not before he had scored the equaliser which kept Argentina in the match until Dennis Bergkamp's 89th- minute miracle gave the Netherlands the victory.

"He may not be so well known in England," his Valencia team-mate Joachim Bjorklund said admiringly last week, "but they certainly know him here in Spain, especially after last year, when he scored so many goals."

It was his third season with Valencia, where he had arrived from Buenos Aires after distinguishing himself in the colours of Estudiantes and Racing Club. In his first year in Spain, he scored five goals in 40 matches. In his second, the haul rose to 12 in 36. And in his third, an impressive 30 in 40 - six of them in three games against Barcelona.

Two weeks ago he scored once more in Valencia's latest defeat of the champions, giving Barcelona's players more reason than ever to appreciate the significance of the nickname which has stuck with him since childhood.

He is known, sometimes even on the team sheet, as El Piojo - the Louse. That doesn't sound very nice. But it means that he is small and quick, elusive and irritating, and carries a nasty bite which can have unpleasant consequences.

"He's a good player," Bjorklund said. "One of the fastest I've seen on a football pitch. When he gets into the spaces, as he seems to do in the European matches, he's lethal."

Tonight at Old Trafford, Manchester United may count themselves lucky to be spared the challenge posed by his partnership with Ilie, which blossomed with the arrival of the Romanian - known as El Cobra - at the club in January 1998. Both men are blessed with lightning speed, and Ilie adds the power to the deftness of Lopez.

But even without his partner, Lopez can make the difference. Last Saturday night, in a drab game at home against Seville, deservedly the league's bottom club, he was constantly active. Mendieta wore the captain's armband, but Lopez was the team's focal point. After six minutes he took a corner on the right, whipping the ball in with his left foot. As it whizzed over the defence and dipped inside the far post, Juan Sanchez hardly needed to get a touch to open the scoring. Valencia completed their scoring after 70 minutes with the sort of lightning counter attack which is their trademark. Sanchez broke down the right and pushed the ball inside the full back to Jocelyn Angloma, whose low cross was teed up by Gerard for Lopez to shoot home from 15 yards, taking careful aim with his right foot.

He runs with his head forward and his eyes held steady, like a gun-dog on the scent of something. Sometimes he revives the ancient art of coming to a halt in front of a defender with the ball at his feet, feinting once or twice and then, having hypnotised his opponent, beating him from a standing start, like Stanley Matthews used to do. If you take your eye off him for an instant, he'll be gone; the next time you seen him, perhaps only a couple of seconds later, he'll have turned up on another part of the pitch altogether.

Despite offers from more glamorous clubs in Italy and Spain, Lopez has chosen to stay at Valencia, following the example of Mario Kempes, another great Argentinian forward. "I think the football we play suits him quite well," Bjorklund said. "I don't know what he gets paid, but I'm sure he's got a good deal here." The Swede squinted up at the sun, shining out of a flawless blue sky on the club's training ground, only a 10-minute drive from the Mediterranean. "And it's a very good place to live."

Those who see him only on television will never get a true idea of Claudio Lopez's talent, or of the problems he poses defenders. On the ball his touch makes him a pleasure to watch, but without it his contribution is equally telling, and marked by great unselfishness. As soon as his team- mates win possession he is starting to make a run, often across the face of the opposing defence, dragging the centre backs all over the place. The television camera, following the ball, sees only the end product.

But his sense of the game's fluid geometry is so good that you can watch him just to admire the angle of his runs.

Batistuta, Ronaldo and Christian Vieri may have bigger reputations and fatter contracts. But if you wanted to get Michael Owen, say, to sit down and learn something from another forward, Claudio Lopez might be the one you'd chose.

Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'