The loss of Antonio Valencia to an horrific double-whammy leg break and ankle dislocation threatens to severely impact Sir Alex Ferguson’s team. Valencia has been one of Manchester United’s brightest attacking threats in the year since his £16 million transfer from Wigan Athletic, and a significant contributor to Wayne Rooney’s goal-glut.
United confirmed severity of Valencia’s injury, although never really in doubt, today as the Ecuadorian winger underwent surgery in Manchester to pin his shattered leg back together. It is now unlikely that the 25-year-old will return to competitive action this season.
Although the nature of Valencia’s injury was freak – catching his studs in the Old Trafford turf as Rangers defender Kirk Broadfoot challenged just after the hour – Ferguson’s long-term planning may now have to bear fruit.
“I just remember sliding in, getting up and looking round to see his bone sticking out,” said Broadfoot, on whom no blame is placed.
“I just tried to get the physio on as soon as possible. You see things like that on television and they are not nice, never mind up close.
“It’s not nice to see a fellow professional like that and I hope he has a fast recovery. He is a top quality player and I want to see him week in, week out again. Hopefully he can get well soon.”
Broadfoot’s hope is unlikely. Another United player, Alan Smith – who suffered a similar break – was rushed into action inside seven months. Now widely regarded as returning too early, Smith never reached the same heights again and Ferguson sold the player to Newcastle United shortly after his return.
Even on the same timeline Valencia will not play again until mid-to-late April 2011.
But as one door shuts, goes the cliché, another opens. The injury to the 25-year-old Ecuadorian winger could offer one of United’s youngster – there are plenty – the chance to step up.
While either the ever-ready but essentially limited Ji-Sung Park and ageing Ryan Giggs will fill in against Liverpool next Sunday, perhaps sooner rather than is time for Ferguson’s stated faith in youth to be rewarded. There is, after all, £10 million worth of talent in Gabriel Obertan and Bebé festering in the reserves.
The Frenchman has started just one Premier League match since his surprise £3.5 million move from Girondin’s de Bordeaux last summer. Injury hasn’t helped. While a back complaint kept the winger on the sidelines until late October last season, a minor ankle injury forced the player out of United’s pre-season tour to North America and he has only this week returned to training.
With Nani likely to switch to the right-wing, where Ferguson believes he is more effective, Obertan’s first step in repaying an ample transfer fee could be to fill in on United’s now vacant left flank. The challenge facing the Frenchman, who has only fleetingly impressed to date, is to force his way into a first team picture that has never seemed further away.
Meanwhile Bebé is yet to play for United at any level following a month of intensive conditioning work and the international break. Those supporters fortunate enough to catch the £7.4 million in action for Portugal Under-21s saw a frighteningly quick but intensely naïve forward, more comfortable in wide positions than as a central striker.
Indeed, few at Old Trafford had expected the Portuguese winger to figure in United’s first team this side of Christmas, despite the hefty fee. That timeline may now be expedited, with just three senior attacking options available to Ferguson in wide areas.
With Tom Cleverley tied to Wigan Athletic until the season’s end, Ferguson must look to United’s even more callow youth for further options. Great deeds may come from Ravel Morrison, new signing Gyliano van Velzen, Robbie Brady, Nick Ajose, and Oliver Norwood, although none has made a first team start to date, even in the Carling Cup.
Of course Ferguson could choose the safer route and deploy Giggs in wide areas once again, although the manager has long since recognised that the Welshman cannot “run up and down that bloody wing” much longer. Meanwhile, Park’s better performances have universally come from central midfield over the past year.
Ferguson’s alternate option – sadly a likely choice in Europe – is to deploy Wayne Rooney wide in a 4-3-3 formation, along with Dimitar Berbatov and Nani. Pushing Rooney wide will satisfy the manager’s desire to use three central midfielders in European football but inevitably blunt the former Evertonian’s goal threat. There is also little chance Rooney will relish being banished to the wing once more.
Perhaps the more exciting option, the one that fits with Ferguson’s stated policy, is to risk either Obertan or Bebé. With Liverpool in town on Sunday, fans have just three days before they find out.