x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Nani needs to provide the spark

Manchester United have won away to Spanish opposition only once in 18 attempts ahead of Valencia match.

Nani, the Manchester United winger, has made huge strides over the past few months. Carl Recine / Action Images
Nani, the Manchester United winger, has made huge strides over the past few months. Carl Recine / Action Images

A turgid and disappointing home draw to Glasgow Rangers in their opening Champions League game meant Manchester United's next match would shift up a level in importance. 

That the game is a tough one away at Valencia, the Primera Liga leaders, this evening meant Sir Alex Ferguson missed only his third ever United match since taking charge in 1986.

He watched the Spaniards play Atletico Madrid last Wednesday, while his United side were at Scunthorpe United. The trip to Humberside saw United's only away win of the season so far, though they will be set on igniting their European campaign and achieving a difficult victory in the Mestalla to prevent Valencia running away with the group after they won their first Champions League game 4-0 in Turkey against Bursaspor.

Ferguson wants United to finish top so they are paired with a second-placed team from another group in the last 16 stage rather than a team likely to win it, though he may want to take a look at the history books. When the clubs first met in the Champions League in 1999/2000, holders United topped the group but Valencia went on to reach the final. 

While at the towering Mestalla, Ferguson saw Valencia's 100 per cent record this season end as they were held to a 1-1 draw, but would have found scant other reasons for celebration. Valencia won again at the weekend and are enjoying their best start to a league since they last won the title in 2004. And after a turbulent period where the club nearly went out of business, they are savouring being back in the Champions League - in which they were finalists in 2000 and 2001.

Ferguson's mood would have darkened considerably after Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs both picked up injuries in Sunday's 2-2 draw at Bolton Wanderers. That is the official line, with Ferguson yesterday revealing the troubled England striker will be out of action for three weeks with an ankle injury. 

With Antonio Valencia and Gary Neville also injured, the "rested" Paul Scholes was also absent from the 22-man squad that left Manchester Airport yesterday morning, meaning that United will have to rely on Dimitar Berbatov and Nani for their creativity. 

Given the low stock of that pair a year ago after too many mediocre performances, that is quite a testimony to their development.

Berbatov is the Premier League's top scorer, while Nani's excellent individual goal at Bolton summed up his form in 2010. Michael Owen might feel optimistic about featuring after scoring at Bolton, netting at Scunthorpe and scoring a hat-trick in his last European game at Wolfsburg last December. 

Michael Carrick is back from injury and could start his first game since the Community Shield seven weeks ago, but the 2,000 travelling fans will journey nervously - and not just because the €90 (Dh445) ticket price will make the game the most expensive for supporters in the club's history for a non-final match.

United have won only once away to Spanish opposition (v Deportivo La Coruna in 2001), drawing eight times and losing nine. They have failed to score on their last three visits to the country. Valencia, on the other hand, hope to extend their 11-match unbeaten home run in Europe and boast a home record against English clubs of seven wins, four draws and just two losses - both to Chelsea. 

Tino Costa was Valencia's man of the match in Turkey two weeks ago, one of several summer signings who earned praise from their coach for adapting so quickly.

United are in the unusual position of being underdogs and the Valencia press are claiming that the absence of Rooney could be damaging to United's chances. But Juan Mata, Valencia's Spain international, tried to dampen the euphoria surrounding his club's brilliant start to the season. 

Mata, who lists the injured Giggs as "one of the best wingers in Europe" said: "We don't think the game is won. It does not matter who they are missing, they have a squad big enough to cover injuries and it's always very difficult to play against Manchester."

Other Valencia players should know the same, because if one manager gets the best from his players when his team is being written off, it is Ferguson. 


10.45pm Aljazeera Sport +4, Rangers v Bursaspor, 10.45pm, Aljazeera Sport +6