Antonio Valencia was brought to Manchester United in the summer of 2009, assigned the near impossible task of replacing Madrid-bound Cristiano Ronaldo’s exploits on the right wing. As the recently named FIFA World Player of the Year jettted off to Real for a quality reflecting £80 million, Valencia arrived at Old Trafford from lowly Wigan, for a comparitevely meagre £16 million.
The transfer raised eyebrows all over the world. We all knew Valencia was a decent Premier League player, but for Wigan Athletic where the expectations are on a different, much smaller planet. Could the Ecuadorian fill Ronaldo’s boots? How would he go about it? Would he try to mimic Cristiano, or be his own man and bring his own style to the United team? The questions were endless.
Not that it bothered Antonio. Valencia seemed totally uninterested in all the hullabaloo of replacing Ronaldo, as he cut a placid, focused figure in his debut season, setting up a countless number of Wayne Rooney’s 34 goals with accurate crosses, and hardly celebrating 7 of his own, as if he believed they were no more than his duty to the team. Valencia hadn’t filled Ronaldo’s boots, but he’d still done a bloody good job, and the truth was – nobody could. Ferguson bought Valencia with the objective of re-shaping the side for the post-Ronaldo era, with a general focus on building the team around the new main man, Rooney, who’s appreciation and chemistry with Valencia couldn’t be underestimated.
United fans took to Valencia, too. He embraced a no-nonsense approach, consistently over-powering his defensive opponent and using his explosive pace to get himself to the by-line to set up his team mates. Not only that, but he didn’t shirk his defensive responsibilities, unlike Ronaldo he always tracked back to assist his full-back. Something that laid the foundations for a competent stint at right-back himself this season, when United picked up a number of defensive injuries.
All of these qualities are what made the broken ankle he suffered against Rangers in September 2010 such a shame. United had lost one of their most important attacking players for the best part of 7 months. Not only that, but as with all serious injuries, it begged the question, would he ever be the same again? An even more prominent question for a player that relies on sheer pace and power as much as Antonio does. Some players would go into their shell, scared of entering any further physical challenges in fear of exacerbating the previous injury.
Once again, not Antonio. Showing the same strength of character that allowed him to so competently step into the right-wing role following Ronaldo’s departure, Valencia came back for the final months of the season, almost instantly hitting top gear. His re-emergence must of been like a new signing for Sir Alex Ferguson, and it gave the team an important boost in securing the record breaking 19th league title. The one performance that will stay in my memory was his near faultless execution of Ashley Cole at Old Trafford, in May, that 3-1 victory against Chelsea practically securing the title. The victory was due in no small part to Valencia’s dominance. Cole, for a full-back who loves to get forward, was pushed back extremely deep by Valencia’s attacking display, as he got past him again and again, nutmegged him, pushed him to the floor, sheer embarrassed him. Valencia was back.
As is typical of Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson’s era, the dust had barely settled on their record breaking success, before the planning had started for the next campaign. Planning that brought with it yet another challenge for United’s persistent Ecuadorian. Ashley Young arrived from Villa Park, adding another body to the fierce battle for the two wing spots. Nani, Young, Valencia, Park, and sometimes Ryan Giggs, composing one of the strongest, if not the strongest wing contingents in world football.
Fans were already jumping to conclusions. Being that Ashley Young would take Valencia’s spot, confining him to the bench and a bit-part role. That hypothesis was only proved more likely when Young hit the floor running with some stunning early season displays, none more so than in the 8-2 dismantling of Arsenal. By contrast, Valencia had a poor start to 2011/2012. It seemed that the predicted loss of confidence following his injury was just beginning to affect him now. He seemed incapable of beating his man, be it either a physical or mental issue. People were questioning whether he had lost a yard of pace.
However, we are in the midst of seeing Valencia do what he has done so many times before, rise stronger in the face of adversity. Following some mediocre displays from Ashley Young, and some niggly injuries to boot, Valencia was given an opportunity to re-affirm his place in the side. United were shaking having come off an uncharacteristic early exit from the Champions League, and the fans demanded a strong response from their team on Saturday against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Valencia started wide right, and excelled throughout, grabbing himself two assists in the 4-1 victory, but more importantly putting in the kind of performance that saw him become so highly rated at Old Trafford. The shackles were off, his confidence was back, and he was attacking his full back like no tomorrow, completely taking them aback with his stunning power and willingness to get to the by-line.
Much has been made of Wayne Rooney’s patchy form, but it seems like whenever Valencia fires, Rooney fires, which is further proved considering Wayne broke his goal-drought to grab a double against Wolves. A firing United needs Rooney and Valencia on form, and Antonio’s resurgance could well be the key to adding a more positive tone to a season that was fast unravelling. United fans will be in unison with crossed fingers, hoping Valencia can continue this form of old.