RC Deportivo La Coruña's elegant playmaker Juan Carlos Valerón is sure to be one of the key figures in Spain's UEFA EURO 2004™ campaign. As such, he is aware that Group A rivals Portugal, Greece and Russia will be out to make it an uncomfortable summer for Iñaki Sáez's side.
Not only will they have to overcome hosts Portugal in front of a partisan crowd, but they have memories of finishing below Greece in qualifying Group 6. It was a 1-0 defeat by the Greeks in Zaragoza that forced Spain to meet, and beat, Norway in a November play-off. Russia, meanwhile, "are also capable of making life difficult for us", according to Valerón.
The 28-year-old told uefa.com: "We know we are going to be facing some difficult rivals, in particular Portugal. But having said that, we know we have a good team - a great set of players with experience of playing at the highest level in competitions such as this. We have belief in our own capabilities and are quietly confident we will get through the first round."
National team debut
Valerón's international career dates back to a 2-2 draw with Italy 18 November 1998, when he was still a Club Atlético de Madrid player. Thirty-six caps later, the midfielder is regarded as one of his country's top players, noted for his excellent vision and precisely threaded passes that bisect opposition defences to leave strikers Raúl González or Fernando Torres through on goal. In short, Valerón is Spain's master of the assist.
Ironically, it was Spain coach Sáez who first spotted him as a youngster in his native Las Palmas. Sáez helped UD Las Palmas sign the 16-year-old Valerón and later, when he was overseeing the Spanish Under-21 side, he called up the midfielder. According to the trainer, Valerón is "educated and talented, a thoroughbred player and a vital cog in the side".
He fits perfectly into Sáez's 4-4-1-1 system, playing a supporting role for the front runners. But how does he see his own place in the national team? "As far as Spain goes, I am very happy with how things have gone for me so far," he explained. "Whether I am playing for Deportivo or Spain, I always try and help the team as best I can. In Portugal, I will be doing just that, providing I get the chance to play, and if not I will be giving my team-mates as much encouragement as I can."
Spain have scheduled three friendlies for the build-up to the finals - their only trial runs before UEFA EURO 2004™ kicks off on 12 June. The first match, against Peru on 18 February, will be followed by a game against Denmark in Seville on 31 March. The real test, though, comes on 28 April when Spain will play Italy in Florence.
"It will be good preparation for us," Valerón said. "We hope that the pre-tournament friendlies will serve to fine-tune the team and iron out any weaknesses we might have. Obviously playing important sides like Italy can only benefit us as we get ready for the championship."
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