Wembley tomorrow, with its legendary open spaces, should be the perfect stage for the talents of Juninho, Middlesbrough's elfin Brazilian. It is just three weeks since he destroyed Leicester City in a Premiership match and there is every danger that he will do so again in the Coca-Cola Cup final. Stopping Juninho is the key to a Leicester success.
Martin O'Neill, City's manager, has not been the only person focusing on him. The covetous eyes of several European clubs are being cast his way, with Valencia said to be preparing a pounds 7m bid. Should Juninho continue his magnificent recent form in front of tomorrow's worldwide television audience he may do more than propel Middlesbrough into Europe for the first time. He could secure a lucrative overseas deal for himself as well.
This would be a loss to the English game as well as Middlesbrough, and not just because Juninho is a delight to watch. His arrival, at a cost of pounds 4.75m, from Sao Paulo in November 1995, was a significant step in the revival of the English game. He was the first real talent to have chosen the Premiership in preference to Serie A. Previous imports, like Dennis Bergkamp, Jurgen Klinsmann and Ruud Gullit, had either failed there, or passed their prime.
Since Juninho arrived Emerson, Gianfranco Zola and Roberto Di Matteo have followed while Alan Shearer has chosen to stay. To leave Middlesbrough, especially for an underachieving club like Valencia, would suggest Juninho saw England as a finishing school, not a destination.
In fact Juninho is more likely to leave Boro if they lose. While failure to get into Europe - and there is a second chance in the FA Cup - may make him consider his position, success would simply confirm his desire to stay.
For one of the most attractive aspects of the 24-year-old is his clear commitment to his employers. Unlike Emerson there was never any doubt that he would be back on time from his midweek trip to Brazil for international duty
Brian Marwood, the former England international, now involved in work for the media and the Professional Footballers' Association, said: "Middlesbrough's problems with Ravanelli and Emerson have been well documented but Juninho has just got on with life. He is one of the best of all the foreign imports, he has adapted with very few complaints.
"The Middlesbrough staff say he is an absolute dream to work with. He is fantastic technically but his attitude and commitment in adapting to England has been first class.''
Frank Clark, whose Manchester City team were knocked out of the FA Cup by Middlesbrough, added: "There is none of the `big star' about him. When I have seen him, on and off the pitch, it has come over what a great bloke he is. He is one of the lads and very respectful to other people.''
This, and the support of his family, several of whom have moved to Teeside, helped him overcome early problems. Juninho arrived to a rapturous reception but it was not long before the club's form began to slide. After a successful debut, Middlesbrough, then newly promoted, were sixth. With the onset of winter they went into free-fall losing eight League games on the spin and going 14 without a win. Juninho struggled to integrate himself into a team which had suddenly been found out by the extra quality of the Premiership.
Two late wins ensured survival, but their mid-table respectability masked serious problems, notably in defence. The signings of Ravanelli and Emerson failed to address these and the club slipped to bottom this season.
Then Gianluca Festa and Mark Schwarzer arrived and Nigel Pearson recovered from injury. Suddenly Middlesbrough were gaining enough of the ball to allow Juninho to play. He had done well sporadically but, for the last month, he has been outstanding, lifting Boro out of the bottom three and within three matches of a cup double.
"He'll be a problem," Clark said. "He is a world-class player at the top of his form. Against us he got away just once and that was it. He is a wonderful player with a wonderful attitude. He is probably most dangerous when he is running at people with the ball, once he is in his stride he is very difficult to shake off.''
"Technically he is like Zola," Marwood said. "Both feet are so quick. His control and touch gives him more space than other players. He is well balanced, he glides over surfaces, his awareness is very good and he links well with other players. If you give him room he runs amok so people have been going man-to-man on him. Derby did that in the second half of their FA Cup tie but, though he was a lot quieter, he still made the second goal.''
This is partly because of his fitness. Kenny Cunningham followed him all over the pitch at Wimbledon but, in the closing stages, Juninho escaped to create the equaliser.
"Bryan Robson has said he is much stronger," Marwood added. "The physical requirements of the game are greatest in this country and he has adapted. When he first came here he was skilful but lightweight. Now he is capable of riding tackles. One thing which has impressed other players is that he is not quick to go to ground. He tries to keep his feet.''
On the move Juninho looks like a elusive child swerving around adult baddies in some pre-teen Hollywood movie. He is so small it seems he would be lost in the professional game but he survived more than 100 matches in the brutal world of Brazilian football and has so far played 62 here without major injury. Schwarzer, Middlesbrough's Australian goalkeeper, marvelled: "I can't believe how strong he is on the ball. He's also deceptively quick." Team-mate Mikkel Beck said Juninho reminded him of the Laudrup brothers, Brian and Michael, who he has played with for Denmark.
"He's always had that creativity, that ability to go at defenders and then play people in, but he's added goals as well," Robbie Mustoe added. "Now he's really settled he's been just superb." This season Juninho has scored 13 goals in 36 games which, given the amount he creates, and Middlesbrough's poor form, is an impressive return.
One impressed peer is Alan Shearer who admitted: "I'll be voting for him as my North-East player of the year, even including my team-mates at Newcastle. He has done extremely well. His skill is unbelievable.''
So how do Leicester stop him? Clark feels "sure Martin O'Neill has something planned" but Marwood cautioned "it can be very difficult to mark someone who is floating in a free role. It is a very disciplined task. If you go man-to-man you have to reshape your side which can be disruptive.''
Juninho should prosper in Wembley's broad acres but, Clark adds, "that's the theory but quite often in a cup final the player who shines is not a top player. There are 22 players with some very good ones on both sides. He is possibly the outstanding player on paper but it doesn't always work out like that." Few, however, will be betting against him.Reuse content