After turbulent start, high-flying Nani is finding his feet at a Valencia side struggling for stability

It has been a while, but Nani was back doing his overhead celebration flip after scoring for Valencia in their 2-1 win at Leganes on Sunday, writes Andy Mitten.
Valencia winger Nani celebrates scoring their opening goal during the Primera Liga match against Leganes at Estadio Municipal de Butarque on September 25, 2016 in Leganes, Spain. Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno / Getty Images
Valencia winger Nani celebrates scoring their opening goal during the Primera Liga match against Leganes at Estadio Municipal de Butarque on September 25, 2016 in Leganes, Spain. Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno / Getty Images

It has been a while, but Nani was back doing his overhead celebration flip after scoring for Valencia in their 2-1 win at Leganes on Sunday.

The man of the match, the Portuguese is enjoying life at his new club. He has played 90 minutes in four of their last five matches, usually on the right wing.

Against promoted Leganes, he played on the left, where he also played at Manchester United. He scored one and set up another in the victory which pushed Valencia further up the table.

Not that he has had a smooth start in Spain.

After the high of becoming a European champion and playing well for Portugal in France in the summer, Nani, 29, came down to earth when he joined Valencia, who lost their first four Primera Liga games. Nani acknowledged the players were still getting to know each other and that he himself must get used to the team and the culture.

Valencia’s problems, however, do not just lie with the players nor their many managers, but the entire structure of the club.

Individuals are frequently undermined by leaks and there are problems with one of the ultra supporters groups, not to mention a half-built new stadium that has stood idle since 2009.

While the ownership of Singaporean Peter Lim stabilised the club, whose existence had been doubted during Spain’s financial crash, the owners are not loved by virtue of the poor form of the team.

Highly critical Valencia fans do not always help themselves either, though last season’s 12th-place finish was unacceptable.

Nani could have been forgiven for thinking that he had jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. The former United winger was not happy in Turkey and wanted a move back to England or to Spain. Stoke City were interested, but it was Valencia who got their man and a move to Spain’s fourth biggest club appeared attractive.

Nani’s performances at Euro 2016 had awakened the interest of many clubs. This was the man for whom Alex Ferguson paid £25.5 million (Dh121.6m) for in 2007. “What attracted me to Nani was his pace, strength and aerial ability. He had two fine feet. All the individual attributes where there,” Ferguson said of his former charge.

After seven seasons at United in which he won the Premier League four times, the League Cup twice and scored the crucial fifth penalty in the 2008 Uefa Champions League final, Nani fell victim to the cull of Louis van Gaal.

His form had dipped as injuries hit his confidence and he needed to find form again. He did that at his former club Sporting, in Lisbon, and played well for Fenerbahce last season before the move to Valencia, who agreed to pay the €9 million (Dh37m) buyout clause in his contract.

Nani did not join a stable club, but a giant which has forgotten what it is like to win trophies. Manager Pako Ayestaran was fired after the opening four defeats. Former Valencia player Voro became caretaker manager for the fourth time and will be at the helm for Sunday’s game against Atletico Madrid.

Valencia have been trying to sign Marcelino, the manager who led Villarreal to fourth last term, but coaches in Spain are not allowed to manage at two clubs in one season, an odd and restrictive rule which sees lower division managers hit financially and having to find work outside of football if they lose their job or want to move.

Though Marcelino was in the Villarreal job on July 1, he did not take charge of a competitive match, so an agreement may be found which allows him to take over at Valencia.

Like his many predecessors, he will find a squad stocked with really talented and largely young players, including Jose Luis Gaya, Daniel Parejo, Joao Cancelo, Martin Montoya, Rodrigo and Munir El Haddadi, who is on loan from Barcelona. They also catch still young fading stars such as Eliaquim Mangala, who arrived from Manchester City on loan.

It does not help when Valencia sell players of the quality of Andre Gomes and Paco Alcacer to Barcelona, but they still have enough talent to be pushing for a top-four place.

In Nani, they have a potent weapon with experience and the talent Ferguson spoke of, but potential and reality have not matched up for Valencia in the past year.

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Evergreen Joaquin still enjoying life at Real Betis

The 35-year-old man did not seem to care that he was being filmed as he danced around the Real Betis changing room after their last game.

The tracksuited Joaquin had every reason to cut a jig. The Betis right-winger had scored the only goal in an Andalusian derby at home to Granada.

Under Gus Poyet, Betis have an edge of aggression lacking last term. They are currently ninth in the table, and while last week’s 1-0 defeat away in the Sevilla derby was a blow, it was only their second loss so far. The other was at Barcelona, the only game Joaquin didn’t start this season.

Betis are in a good place. A year ago, they were on a slide which would see Pepe Mel dismissed with the side in 15th. That is not sufficient for the sixth best-supported team in Spain with an average home crowd of 38,018 last term.

Now, they are playing better and as Joaquin said after the derby defeat: “We did not deserve to lose.”

Joaquin is performing well. Not only is he still attempting to beat players with the flush of speed which saw him rise to prominence in the early noughties when he was Spain’s standout player in the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, but he is working hard to get back and defend.

In 2004 Jose Mourinho, then newly in charge of Chelsea, was keen to sign him; Joaquin turned him down, but his career would turn out to be an eventful one.

He would go on to make 51 appearances for Spain, but his career never hit the expected heights and he did not help his international chances by being critical of the Spain squad and their manager Luis Aragones after a 2008 European Championship qualifying defeat by Northern Ireland.

Spain would win that competition without Joaquin, just as they would win the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 European Championship.

A golden player missed out on his national team’s golden age, but Joaquin was still in demand as he moved to Valencia in 2006. But even at the Mestalla he never fully recovered the fleet-heeled storming form of his youth. He joined big spending Malaga before moving to Fiorentina, age 31, in 2013.

He prospered in Florence but missed Sevilla where he Is loved. Well, by half the city at least.

Joaquin is a joker in the dressing room, but he is a serious professional in great shape. Along with another fellow veteran, Ruben Castro, 35, the pair are the most popular players in the squad.

Joaquin, one of eight siblings from a football-playing family, wanted to be a bullfighter when he grew up. Instead, he became a footballer – one enjoying his 16th season at the top level of his profession.

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Player of the week

Nani, with a notable mention of Villarreal’s Samu Castillejo, 21, who was man of the match in their 3-1 win against bottom-of-the-table Osasuna. Sergi Roberto impressed again for Barcelona, making the departure of Daniel Alves seem like less of a miss with each week. He set up two in Barcelona’s 5-0 win at Sporting Gijon.

Game of the week

Valencia v Atletico Madrid, Sunday, 2pm (UAE time). Spain’s fourth and third biggest clubs. Can Valencia make it three wins from three and continue their rise up the table against a team who remain unbeaten?

What else?

• Cristiano Ronaldo was substituted for only the 22nd time in 231 league games for Real Madrid. He shook Zinedine Zidane’s hand as he came off the Las Palmas pitch after 71 minutes, but he did not look pleased. Zidane said he was doing it with Tuesday’s game at Borussia Dortmund in mind. Then Las Palmas scored an 84th-minute equaliser and the game ended 2-2.

• With one win from six, Espanyol are struggling. Under new owners, a new manager in Quique Sanchez Flores and with an improved budget, their fans hoped they would push for a European place this season.

Their luck is out at the moment though, and even though they did not play badly at home to Celta Vigo, their opponents scored in the 90th and 94th minutes in a 2-0 win. Jose Reyes, one of the summer signings, played very well on the wing, but Espanyol need to start winning.

• After a dreadful start, Celta Vigo won two games in a row and are up to 11th place. With plenty of talent in their squad, do not expect them to be in a relegation battle. Beating Barcelona at home on Sunday is a big ask, though.

• Atletico Madrid were the only one of the 32 teams competing in this week’s Champions League to play on Sunday. The Spanish League said they had to play on Sunday because their opponents, Deportivo La Coruna, had played on Thursday. Which begs the question: Why did they not arrange for Deportivo to play on Tuesday or Wednesday?

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Published: September 27, 2016 04:00 AM

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