x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Barcelona appreciate value of Depor's Juan Carlos Valeron

Turning 36 next month, the fact Juan Carlos Valeron can still play 89 minutes in Camp Nou is a credit to his longevity.

The generous last-minute applause cascading down from the Camp Nou's vast stands was not for a Barcelona player, but Deportivo La Coruna's substituted playmaker.

Turning 36 next month, the fact Juan Carlos Valeron can still play 89 minutes in Camp Nou is a credit to his longevity, especially as his slender frame has been ravaged by injury. He never did fill out and his shorts still look too big for his chicken legs, but he still plays like Zinedine Zidane - a man he had the talent and temerity to outclass on several occasions in the Bernabeu.

Indeed early in the game against Barca, he held off three opponents 15 years younger than him before threading a delicate pass through to a teammate.

Valeron, one of the greatest modern day Spanish footballers is a humble Canary Islander, who did not even realise that the applause was for him. So, he did not clap or respond with a gesture, but there was no conceit in his ignorance. Perhaps he saves his spatial awareness for playing the game with balletic artistry.

As the Barca players celebrated the Catalans' 21st league title by throwing plastic peppers into the crowd to symbolise the spirit of the team, the mood contrasted with that of the Deportivo dressing room.

"We won an important point," explained Valeron to The National when he emerged. "But results did not go our way."

A decade ago, "Super Depor" thrilled Spanish and European football with their wonderful side of Diego Tristan, Roy Makaay, Walter Pandiani, Noureddine Naybet, Mauro Silva, Fran, Manuel Pablo and Valeron.

They had won the Primera Liga in 2000 and finished second and third four times each. Javier Irureta's side beat Manchester United home and away, they reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League twice and semi-finals once.

European fans loved visiting La Coruna, with the atmospheric Riazor stadium located on a beautiful beach. Depor loved winning with a tried and tested 4-5-1 formation which featured Valeron behind a frontman. They won the Spanish Cup in Real Madrid's centenary year ... by beating Real in the final at the Bernabeu.

But that was then. Now, Deportivo face second division football for the first time since 1991. Their 0-0 draw on Sunday was enough to keep them a point above Zaragoza in the relegation zone with a game to play, but other results did not help. The league's lowest scorers have a vital game next weekend at home to Valencia, while Zaragoza are at Levante, Valencia's in-form neighbours.

"We have to treat it as a cup final," Valeron said. "We have to win. It would be very sad to see this great club go down."

Valeron is in his 11th season as a Depor player.

"The best moments of my football life have been here," said Valeron in his high-pitched voice. "I can remember when we were Champions League regulars, when we reached the semi-final [in 2004], won against Manchester home and away and beat Milan 4-0. They are great memories. Now there is only me and Manuel [Pablo] left."

As if to confirm the double act, full-back Pablo, 35, who is standing next to him, smiles. Both were Spain internationals, but there is a provincial air about their swagger and dress, a friendliness and lack of the cynicism often found in players at bigger clubs.

With their loose fitting tracksuits and out of fashion trainers, they look like they should be running a market stall. Both hail from the island of Gran Canaria and have overcome horrendous injuries to serve Depor for a combined 24 years.

"We share the same memories of the old team and we try and keep in touch with them, but it's hard in football. There's always new teammates," Valeron. said. "We've both want to carry on next season ... as first-division players at this club."

sports@thenational.ae