Football: Valencia's workmen enjoy tempo in bright lights of European experience

Champions' League: Spaniards have short-circuited on domestic front but will spark in Old Trafford cauldron
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The Independent Online
WHEN THE lights failed 20 minutes into the Spanish league match between Valencia and Seville on Saturday night, and a series of small electrical fires started in the gantry above the main stand, several thoughts came to mind. The first, to do with the activities of Far Eastern betting rings, was swiftly overcome by the second, a memory of half-finished Spanish holiday hotels with dodgy wiring. The third thought was that for any spies attending on behalf of Manchester United, who entertain Valencia in the Champions' League on Wednesday night, the whole match might as well have been played in the dark. Lovers of good football among the 30,000 who half-filled La Mestalla, as Valencia's Estadio Luis Casanova is better known, probably felt the same.

Valencia have a reputation for struggling against poor teams and Seville, the tail-end charlies of the Spanish Primera Division, are certainly a poor team. A goal down when the lights went out, the visitors fared no better after the match resumed following a 25-minute delay for repairs. Finally losing 2-0 to goals by Juan Sanchez and Claudio Lopez, they managed to drag the home team down to their dismal level.

Which is why Alex Ferguson's spies were more or less wasting their time. Although the line-up will be similar, the Valencia who arrive at Old Trafford will be a very different proposition from the bunch who struggled to overcome their inferiors on Saturday. Their form in the Champions' League so far this season suggests that they enjoy rising to a challenge.

Representing Spain's third largest city, Valencia captured the Spanish championship in 1942, 1944, 1947 and 1971, and have taken the Copa del Rey, the Spanish cup, six times. Their victory in 1979, inspired by the great Argentinian forward Mario Kempes, was followed by victory in the Cup-Winners' Cup. The most recent cup win came last spring, with a 3-0 trouncing of Atletico Madrid in the final.

Apart from Kempes, Valencia's other foreign stars have included Rainer Bonhoff, Predrag Mijatovic, Ariel Ortega and four members of the 1994 Brazilian world championship squad - Romario, Mazinho, Viola and Leonardo.

Their recent coaches, too, have been a cosmopolitan lot, including Cesar Menotti, Carlos Alberto Parreira, Guus Hiddink and Jorge Valdano. Claudio Ranieri, an Italian, took them to last season's success before departing for Atletico Madrid. His successor, Hector Cuper, is a 44-year-old Argentine who began his coaching career with Huracan and Lanus before crossing the Atlantic to join Real Mallorca, with whom he reached the final of the last Cup- Winners' Cup.

Cuper has tried to encourage the players to adopt a more sophisticated attacking style than that favoured by Ranieri, who believed in getting the ball as quickly as possible to the fast front-runners, the nippy little Claudio Lopez of Argentina and the powerful Adrian Ilie of Romania. Now the ball is more likely to be played up to them through midfield, although the established strengths are not ignored.

"We did quite well last year with the long balls," Joachim Bjorklund, the club's Swedish international centre back, formerly with IFK Gothenburg, Vicenza and Rangers, told me. "I think the new coach is trying to adapt to that, because we've got some pacy players up front and, if you play a short-passing game all the time, you give the opponent a bit more time to get behind the ball."

At the back, too, there have been changes. "Last year," Bjorklund said, "we normally played with a back three - or a back five, whichever way you want to look at it. This year we play 4-4-2, with a flat back four. Apart from that, it's pretty much the same. Cuper likes to get the players working for each other. Ranieri was about the same in that respect. And anyway I think we're a bit more hard-working than a normal Spanish team."

Hard working, but also sometimes - like Saturday night - hard to watch, and the results have been mixed. After qualifying for the Champions' League by finishing fourth last year they have been languishing in the lower half of the table this season, dropping points to lesser teams while beating Real Madrid in the Bernabeu and, most recently, Barcelona at home.

In the Champions' League, the performances have been far more impressive. Confronting Bayern Munich, Rangers and PSV Eindhoven in a strong first- phase group, Valencia won three and drew the remainder of their six matches to come out on top. They beat Rangers home and away, which produced mixed emotions in Bjorklund, who enjoyed his two seasons in Glasgow.

They also drew both matches with Bayern, and considered themselves unlucky not to have taken six points from last year's beaten finalists. "To be honest," Bjorklund said, "we should have won both games against them. They were a bit disappointing. But we got two points from them and we won the group. You have to be happy with that."

Less happy for the Swede was a blow to the knee which forced his removal after 20 minutes of the second match against Bayern, six weeks ago. He took a month to recover, meanwhile losing his place to Miroslav Djukic, the Yugoslavian international, who will partner Mauricio Pellegrino on Wednesday. The 6ft 4in Pellegrino won the Argentinian title and the first of his international caps with Velez Sarsfield before arriving in Europe to join Barcelona a year ago. He failed to make an impression, and moved down the coast at Cuper's behest.

Valencia's current defence is a Spanish equivalent of the classic Arsenal back four. Like Bjorklund, who will be on the bench at Old Trafford, Pellegrino is 28, and forms a strong partnership with the 33-year-old Djukic. On the flanks there are two experienced full backs, Jocelyn Angloma, a European Cup winner with Marseilles, and Amadeo Carboni, formerly of Roma, both aged 34. Behind them in goal, if he has recovered from a slight injury, will be Santiago Canizares, 30, the long-time international understudy to Andoni Zubizarreta, although Andres Palop deputised efficiently against Seville.

The midfield is run by Gaizka Mendieta, the club captain, a late-developing 25-year-old Basque whose long blond hair makes him stand out in a Spanish team and whose inspirational qualities generally overcome a tendency to sloppiness. His lieutenant is the 22-year-old Gerard, rejected by Barcelona two years ago but currently, in Bjorklund's view, Valencia's most effective player. A tall, slender, straight-backed figure, Gerard attracts comparisons with Josep Guardiola, his former Barcelona team-mate.

"Guardiola might be a better passer," Bjorklund said, "but I think Gerard is running up and down the pitch more, destroying the opponents' game, and he gets into the box a lot and scores some goals."

Francisco Farinos, a 21-year-old full Spanish international, plays wide on the right, but an injury to Kily Gonzalez, a goalscoring midfielder formerly with Boca Juniors and Real Zaragoza, may provide an opportunity for Luis Milla, the experienced former Barcelona and Real Madrid man, on the left when they meet the European Cup holders on Wednesday.

"I played against Manchester United in 1994 with Gothenburg," Bjorklund said. "We lost 4-2 at Old Trafford and won 3-1 at home. But I would say it's quite a different team now - more of a team, in fact. Of course, everyone who plays for Manchester United is a great individual, but there aren't really any superstars now, apart from maybe Beckham. And they're the best team in the world. They've just won the InterContinental Cup, so they must be.

"Of course, it's hard to say who's really the best, but they're certainly among the top three or four. That's good enough, isn't it?"

The big news at Valencia's training camp in the low hills outside the suburb of Paterna, a few miles north-west of the city, on Friday was Ilie's announcement that he would be missing not just the next day's league match but the trip to Manchester. The scorer of a superbly venomous goal against Bordeaux two weeks ago in their opening phase two match, he has been suffering from a mysterious complaint that was at first incorrectly diagnosed as hepatitis.

Juan Sanchez took Ilie's place against Seville, and was on hand to profit from Claudio Lopez's sixth-minute corner kick. The partnership frequently misfired, although Sanchez was able to return the favour when his break in the 71st minute led to Lopez extending the lead.

A rival for the job of Lopez's straight man will be Goran Vlaovic, the Croatian international forward who joined Valencia from Padova three years ago and appeared on the bench on Saturday for the first time since picking up an injury in the cup final.

The competition for starting places is intense. "We've got a lot of good players," Bjorklund said. "But there's going to be a lot of games this season. Sooner or later you're going to play, and you just have to take your chance."

Why have Valencia been so impressive in Europe and so disappointing in their own league? "If I only knew," Bjorklund said. "One difference, I guess, is that in Europe we're playing the big teams, who try to play football, and that suits us quite well. Here in Spain some of the teams just get behind the ball and try to defend and defend and defend. That gives us problems."

Nevertheless, Bjorklund thinks that Spanish football is in good shape at the moment, new money from television having given less fashionable clubs the strength to challenge the established giants. "You just have to look at the European competitions," he said. "All of the Spanish teams are still there, three in the Champions' League and four in the Uefa Cup. That says quite a lot."

Winning the European Cup, he said, would be hard. "But European football suits us well. Everyone thinks that Manchester should be the favourites in this group. Nevertheless, we're feeling confident."

The silence that greeted Valencia's players as they left the pitch on Saturday night after a 2-0 home win provided an eloquent testimony to the poverty of their league form. Their fans will be hoping that on Wednesday night, once again, the stimulus of European competition will be enough to turn the lights back on.