The decision has been a tough one to make this week. Morocco’s Younes Belhanda performed brilliantly for Montpellier as they beat a dogged, relegation-threatened Sochaux to maintain their position at the top of Le Championnat. The mesmerising Moroccan was substituted to a standing ovation late in the game thanks to the way he dazzled the crowd with Zizou-esque roulette turns and through-the-keyhole through-balls. Meanwhile, in Spain, Valencia and Algeria’s Sofiane Feghouli looked very mature in possession in Valencia’s 4-0 destruction of AZ Alkmaar in the Europa League. Playing as a right-midfielder, his crossing was a constant problem for the AZ centre-backs and he showed a simplistic touch of flair when he was on the ball when combining with right-back Antonio Barragan.
Yet, for all the exploits of the North Africans pizzazz wizards, the award this week goes to the defensive solidity of a left-back: Taye Taiwo. In football, it’s difficult for defenders to shine. In fact, they don’t get enough credit. Certainly, if you look at individual awards then majority of the awards seldom go to defensive players and that, to some degree, formed the basis of the decision.
One of the toughest players to face in the world at the moment is undoubtedly Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia. He is quite simply a machine; a constant battering ram blessed with frightening pace and a sheer, direct quest for productivity. It’s not that he is tricky, no – in fact, it’s quite the opposite: you know what he will do the majority of the times – try and get to the byline and cross with his right foot, he merely uses his left foot to stand on – but stopping him for 90 minutes is another matter.
The solution to stop Valencia is to double-up on him but that requires your partner on the wing to be willing to help out with the defensive task. When that partner is Adel Taarabt then occasions will occur where you’re isolated and face a one-on-one duel. And no matter how good your wing-partner is at tracking back, there are bound to be occasions where, as Blackburn found out, Valencia will have an isolated run at your full-back and make the difference.
On a one-on-one basis, then, you have to match Valencia for pace and strength over the course of 90 minutes and Taiwo did those tasks very well – in one instance towards the end of the game, Valencia bounced off him when they came together as he matched him for strength. As a Manchester United fan (forgive me), I can’t think of any full-backs who have been able to cope with the Ecuadorian since the start of his rich vein of form in early December, but Taye Taiwo, even though offered little going forward, sure showed his quality.
Photo Credit: AFP PHOTO/OLLY GREENWOOD