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Valero and Vieri: the future and the past

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Phil Minshull | 20:30 UK time, Monday, 26 October 2009

West Brom fans, and indeed many others, may be a bit surprised about what they are about to read next, but on Saturday night I think I might have seen the next great European midfielder.

His name is Borja Valero and he plays for Real Mallorca.

Yes, you did read that right. The very same Borja Valero who was the Baggies' record signing for £4.7 million from Mallorca at the start of last season before enduring a miserable dysfunctional season which ended with West Brom being relegated.

He never settled at The Hawthorns, adding his name to the long list of Hispanic players who have underperformed in England for all the stereotypical reasons like the physicality of the Premier League or even the British weather.

Valero with West Brom and Liverpool's Ryan Babel
Valero did not enjoy his time in the Premier League

West Brom's new manager Roberto di Matteo didn't think too hard when several offers from Spanish clubs arrived during the summer and eventually Valero was loaned back to his former club.

However, a new Borja Valero has emerged, one that would be unrecognisable to those that watched him last season.

First of all, there is the new look.

Gone are the wavy locks and instead the one-time teenage star of the Real Madrid cantera (youth system) now sports a number one buzz cut and designer stubble.

Secondly and more importantly, since his return to Mallorca he has become the player West Brom had hoped he would be for them.

He's always been an indefatigable runner, linking the back four and strikers. Into the bargain, he's got many of the touches of the Barca pair of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta and has finally dared to show what he can do.

Valero has been the one of the main reasons why the cash-strapped Balearic island club are challenging for a place in next season's Champions League. Contrary to what English football observers might believe after he went a year without finding the net, he can score as well.

On Saturday, he grabbed a crucial injury-time equaliser in the 1-1 draw with Atletico Madrid - with Mallorca down to nine men thanks to some defensive indiscretions - his third goal of the season.

He has a habit of popping up at the right time. Until recently, he was probably best known locally for scoring the injury-time goal that gave Spain a 1-0 win over Turkey in the final of the 2004 European Under-19 Championships.

Valero in action for Real Mallorca
Valero scored the equaliser for Mallorca against Atletico Madrid at the weekend

Alongside him that afternoon in Switzerland were Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos and Raul Albiol, as well as Valencia's David Silva, who have all gone on to become regulars at senior level.

It's unlikely that Valero will be accompanying them to South Africa as Spain coach Vicente del Bosque has already said that the squad which played their final World Cup qualifiers earlier this month against Armenia and Bosnia is effectively the one he will rely upon next summer.

His way to getting his first cap is blocked by not only Xavi and Iniesta but also the Villarreal duo of Marcos Senna and Santi Cazorla but, if Mallorca get into Europe and Villarreal go down, then that situation may change quickly.

Valero now seems reluctant to return to Birmingham.

"I want to stay in Spain and hopefully at Mallorca. I feel very happy here," he told me after the game.

"Everybody understands what the coach wants, there is a very good feeling in the squad. The big issue is going to be the money. Mallorca did good business when they sold me. I hope their economic situation means they can buy me back but that's not certain."

The black hole in the Mallorca finances means that Valero is one of three on-loan players in the first team squad; they recalled another three of their own loaned players during the summer and didn't spend a single euro on signing players.

Moving from one man with a bright future ahead of him to another player with a multitude of talents: Christian Vieri, who decided to call it a day last Thursday at the age of 36.

For me, the Italian was one of the most natural gifted strikers in European club football over the last decade or so.

His wanderlust saw him play for 10 top-flight clubs in Italy (including the triumvirate of Inter, Milan and Juventus and three stints at Atalanta), Spain and France.

Injuries kept his productivity down in his final few seasons and stopped him getting a World Cup winner's medal in 2006 when, by general consensus, he would probably have been part of Marcelo Lippi's squad.

However, when fit, he was usually deadly.

The statistics tell their own story. He scored 162 goals in 251 first division games and 23 goals in 49 games when playing for the Azzurri.

At home his talents were recognised when he picked up the Italian Footballer of the Year award in 1999 and 2002. Abroad, I often felt he was not always given due credit, partly because he was never on the winning team in the Champions League or at a major international championship.

Vieri was a prolific force for Atletico
Vieri was a prolific force in his time with Atletico

I'm sure Inter, Juventus or Lazio fans might have something to say about this but perhaps his best single season was in the 1997-98 season when he was superb for Atletico Madrid.

The behind-the-scenes chaos at Atletico contributed to his departure after only one season but he'll never be forgotten after scoring 24 goals in 24 league appearances.

He also bagged five in the Uefa Cup in a run which saw Atletico reach the semi-finals that season, including a memorable hat-trick against PAOK Salonika. I will never forget the swerving shot from the byline that snooker trick shot specialist John Virgo would have been proud of.


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