When RC Deportivo La Coruña won at Manchester United FC in the first group stage of this season's UEFA Champions League, the focus afterwards was not so much on how well the visitors had played as how much a couple of individual errors had cost their celebrated hosts.
However when Deportivo repeated the achievement at United's English rivals Arsenal FC in the second group stage with a near-perfect display of counterattacking football, the talk was no longer of the losers: Deportivo had very much arrived. Indeed, they did the double over both English sides and were suddenly serious contenders for the biggest prize of all in European club football.
The catalyst for that performance at Highbury was a softly spoken Canary Islander by the name of Juan Carlos Valerón Santana. The 26-year-old playmaker opened the scoring on the half-hour, and when he was substituted late in the second half, the game safely won, the raucous applause from the appreciative travelling fans told its own story.
When Valerón spoke to uefa.com yesterday, he was anxious not to get carried away by his own performance that night in north London. "As a player, it's always a pleasure when people applaud me," he admitted, "but I'm already used to both sides of the story: when they applaud you and when they boo you.
"I always try to be calm, and sometimes things work out on the pitch and sometimes they don't. It's difficult for a player to say when he's playing well, but that time [at Highbury] it worked very well. Usually though, you're not thinking about if one performance is better than another, you're just thinking about playing."
Valerón's modesty is genuinely disarming and in direct contrast to the more extrovert on-pitch persona of the man he has effectively replaced in the Deportivo side this season, Djalminha. Last season, Deportivo's first in the Champions League, all the talk was of the Brazilian international, whether he played or not; this season it is all about teamwork.
'Best ever season'
"This could be my best ever season, but the fact that the team is playing so well helps me play better," says Valerón, who moved to the Riazor stadium in the summer of 2000 after spells with UD Las Palmas, RCD Mallorca and Club Atlético de Madrid.
"No player thinks about being on the pitch instead of another player. I just try to work as hard as possible and help the team, but that's everyone's intention. Sometimes you play and another time you don't. I like playing of course, that's what everyone wants."
World Cup hopes
Like a number of his team-mates, this summer Valerón hopes to be playing for Spain in the FIFA World Cup – he made his international debut against Italy in 1998, shortly after helping his country win the UEFA European Under-21 Championship in Romania. He also featured at EURO 2000™, and came on as a second-half substitute for Raúl González in Spain's most recent friendly, last week's 1-0 defeat against the Netherlands.
Turned the game
But for now it is the club that matters and a Champions League quarter-final with United. In their first meeting this season, in La Coruña, Valerón came on at half-time and helped turn the game with a deft pass for Walter Pandiani that led to Deportivo's equaliser.
'United are a great team'
"It was a very hard match," he recalled. "Manchester are always very well organised and in the last ten minutes we got on top. But until then they performed very well. I'm a fan of football and that's why I like Manchester United. They are a great team and they can surprise you. For a team like Deportivo, just starting out in European competitions, we are very proud to be playing against them."
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