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Juan Carlos Valeron (left) is confident of getting back to his best after an injury lay-off.-AP Juan Carlos Valeron (left) is confident of getting back to his best after an injury lay-off.

The subtleness of his control over a match endeared him to all and Juan Carlos Valeron remains one of those few players who can claim to be loved universally, writes Matt Somerford.

Deportivo La Coruna need look no further than the return of its midfield schemer Juan Carlos Valeron for inspiration as it tries to emulate the success the club enjoyed at the start of the decade.

When Deportivo won the Spanish Primera Liga title in 1999-2000 there was very real hope on the Iberian peninsula that the Barcelona-Real Madrid duopoly could be broken. With a potent strike-force led by Roy Makaay and Diego Tristan and Brazilian midfi elders Djalminha and Mauro Silva, the Galician team captured its first-ever league crown.

Looking to build on that success Deportivo brought in the then 25-year-old Valeron from Atletico Madrid after the capital club had been relegated. By that time Valeron had already established a reputation as the possessor of one of Spain’s finest midfield minds.

His vision was matched by his effortless ability to execute inch-perfect passes to all parts of the ground, leading some to refer him as “Spain’s Zidane, only better.” But where Zidane wowed his opposition and fans with his sublime ball skills, Valeron’s displays involved far less sweat.

He was a schemer in all respects of the word, sitting snuggly in behind his strikers and orchestrating proceedings with a clarity of mind as others made hay around him. The subtleness of his control over a match endeared him to all and Valeron remains one of those few players who can claim to be loved universally. His status is, however, most exalted in north-west Spain.

In his first four years with Deportivo he helped it to four consecutive top three finishes in La Liga while it won the Spanish Copa del Rey and Super Cup in 2002. Perhaps most notable was its run to the semifinals of the 2003-04 UEFA Champions League.

Deportivo’s 4-0 triumph over AC Milan at the Riazor in the quarterfinals, a game in which Valeron scored, will go down in the folklore of the club after it had lost the opening leg in north Italy 4-1. It went out to eventual winner Porto following a set of cagey semifinals that were only decided by Derlei’s penalty in the second leg at the Riazor.

But success since then has been thin on the ground for Deportivo. The club has gone from perennial Champions League contender to relegation battler as its star names have filtered out of the club.

Valeron has been the one player to remain, however, his involvement has been largely insignificant because of a knee injury suffered on January 22, 2006. The playmaker was carried off two minutes from the end of a home game against his former club Real Mallorca after tearing cruciate ligaments in his left knee.

His attempts to return in the ensuing three years have been as frustrating as Deportivo’s own form. The former Spain international has had to return to the surgeon’s table on three occasions to fix his troublesome knee with a number of false starts in that time only serving to further annoy.

Valeron’s strong will, however, kept him positive through those low points always believing he could make a return to become the player he was. “When you make the decision to have your third operation in two years on the same injury you do it because you hope you will be able to completely recover,” he said.

That determination was echoed by Deportivo club doctor Ramon Barral, who added: “At no moment, even through his setbacks, did I see him lose heart. He gave everything he had in order to get back to fitness.” It is of little surprise then that Valeron did make his comeback to the Deportivo team in January when he made his first league start — almost three years to the day since suffering his knee injury — against Real Madrid.

His return to action comes as a timely boost for Deportivo as its impressive start to this campaign threatens to be undone. After years away from the top of the Spanish football tree the Galician team has again been hovering around the Champions League places before a run of just four points from its past five league games.

That has seen Miguel Angel Lotina’s side drop to eighth in the standings, but it is still in touching distance of the European places just three points behind fourth-placed Valencia.

Valeron’s return has yet to yield a win in his three starts back and his side will have been disappointed with a 1-1 draw at struggling Mallorca in what was the 33-year-old midfielder’s 300th La Liga appearance.

Lotina’s troop will be looking to arrest its poor run quickly with its UEFA Cup campaign to resume against Danish champion AaB in Aalborg. But amid the relative gloom Lotina has been quick to point out the importance of Valeron’s return in raising spirits, while the player himself remains a positive force in the dressing room.

“I’m confident I can get back to my best,” he said. And for a midfielder who relied on his smarts rather than his work-rate in his prime anyway, you get the feeling he could yet be proved correct. Certainly no one in Spain would begrudge him that.

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