Pitchside

An audience with Ryan Giggs, and the sleepless star who faced Man Utd

Pitchside

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Valencia midfielder Javi Fuego took his place in the queue for passport control like everyone else who'd just stepped off the Monarch airline from Barcelona to Manchester on Tuesday afternoon.

His team-mates had flown north the previous night on a private charter, where they were rushed through the airport to their luxury hotel. Fuego, 30, wore trainers, shorts and a Valencia tracksuit top. English passengers didn't really recognise him but knew he was a footballer and he was happy to oblige with any requests for photos.

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The former Sporting Gijon, Levante, Recreativo Huelva and Rayo Vallecano player had flown out without his team because his wife was due to give birth. He trained with them on Monday morning, then flew to his native Asturias in northern Spain. His baby was born at 1.07am on Tuesday.

Fuego was as ecstatic as you'd expect but he couldn't hang around for too long. At 5am he made his way to his local airport and took a flight to Barcelona. He'd not a minute's sleep. At 11.20am he boarded another flight from Barcelona to Manchester.

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"I hope to play to play tonight," he said as he readied his passport for inspection. "I'd be surprised if I don't play." It wasn't arrogant, he's a mainstay of the team, and the club made clear this summer they had no intention of listening to any offers from him. Fuego was excited. "How many people will be there?" he asked. "We've heard over 50,000." The Old Trafford crowd would be 58,381.

As he waited at the airport, Fuego had no idea that Manchester United had marked him out as their main man. Louis van Gaal is obsessive about scouting his opponents. He wants to know everything. In Denver on the pre-season tour of the United States he had his players in a 10pm meeting studying Roma's set pieces. For a friendly. Assistant manager Ryan Giggs does much of the preparation and he was told about Fuego becoming a dad the day after the game.

"Really?" said a surprised Giggs, "because he was our main focus in preparation. He's their player who likes to get on the ball at the back."

The defensive midfielder was one of the best players for Los Che last season. "He's very popular in the dressing room, one of our most senior players and he's seen as a father figure," said a club spokesman. "He wanted to play in Manchester." Fuego did play and performed well considering he'd had almost no sleep.

"I was very impressed by Valencia," said Giggs, though he wasn't sure how they'd do this season. "It's difficult to gauge," he explained. "Sevilla came and battered us pre-season last year. They went onto have a really good season. I watched a bit of Swansea v Villarreal (in a friendly last week) and Villarreal battered Swansea. They're good teams, the top Spanish sides, all technically strong.

"I watched Valencia in the Emirates competition and even though it wasn't the same level as last night (in the friendly at Old Trafford) and the games were played at a walking pace, they looked really good. Their defensive shape was impressive, but they were also effective attacking wise and moved the ball really quickly. They weren't a big team, but they looked aggressive. I don't know how strong their squad is and if they'd struggle if they get a few injuries."

Valencia have new players like Rodrigo. The Brazil-born 23-year-old arrived from Benfica in the close season having helped the Lisbon side win a treble last season - though it could have been four had he not missed a penalty in the Europa League final. The former Real Madrid youngster also played on loan at Bolton Wanderers when he was still a teenager.

"We've played Valencia many times over the years and we remember the tough encounters with them," recalled Giggs. "They'd had great players like Aimar, Mata, Silva, Villa and Vicente. In our analysis of Valencia for the game this week, we said that every single one of their players was technically good and can handle the ball. When you have players like that, you don't mind playing the ball to your team-mate because you know they can handle the ball and manipulate it."

[PAPERS: WELBECK LINKED WITH SHOCK DESTINATION]

Last season saw Valencia accumulate fewer points than in any other season so far this century. As with Manchester United, it was a shock they didn't qualify for European competition for this season - it's only the second time this century that they're not in Europe.

Valencia reached the semi-finals of the Europa League and lost to Sevilla in agonising circumstances last term; they also beat Barcelona 3-2 in Camp Nou, but they were inconsistent and finished as close to Real Sociedad in seventh as they were to the relegation spot. Los Che are on their third manager in a year, their new Portuguese boss Nuno Espirito Santo having led tiny Rio Ave into Europe for the first time last season.

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Spain's economic crisis has hit Valencia harder than most and their new 75,000 stadium has stood unfinished for five years, a modern day coliseum wilting by the Med. Deadlines to re-start the building process have come and gone, plans have been redrawn, yet Valencia remained competitive.

There has been boardroom instability, debt and a change of owners, yet they've continued to buy and develop fine footballers: Villa, Mata, Soldado, Silva and Jordi Alba. Barca signed defender Jeremy Mathieu in the close season.

Valencia now hope for a brighter future under new Singaporean owner Peter Lim after his protracted takeover. As for Javi Fuego, he must have been shattered after the game at Old Trafford, but surely he slept well in Manchester on Tuesday night.

"Not quite," a Valencia spokesman told us. "We flew straight back to Spain after the game and got home at 4am. Javi slept well on the flight." He deserved it.

- Andy Mitten - @AndyMitten

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