When Antonio Valencia stepped on the Old Trafford pitch for the first time since his £16 million move across Lancashire from Wigan Athletic the spotlight shone firmly on the Ecuadorian. Not without good reason, as Cristiano Ronaldo’s heir-apparent, the mild-mannered 23-year-old held the weight of expectations on his shoulders.
The hopes and fears of United supporters, 13 games into Valencia’s Old Trafford career, now closer to being realised.
Valencia’s match-winning performance in Manchester United’s 1-0 victory in Moscow Wednesday night marked another progressive step in the Lago Agrio-born winger’s career. Hugging the touchline, with the confidence to pose a constant threat, the wide man scored for the second time in as many games for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side.
Valencia’s display against Moscow was a strong follow-up to a positive run-out for United in the Premier League Saturday last. Valencia’s old-fashioned display, scoring United’s second – ultimately winning – goal against Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford, may have been a turning point in the former Villarreal player’s career in Manchester.
But it was an uncertain start for the former Wigan player, with Valencia starting as many games on the bench as he did in the team during United’s first 10 games this season. Indeed, the Ecuadorian’s performance against Arsenal so lacked in conviction that Ferguson hauled the winger off and supporters were right to hold doubts about Valencia’s ability compensate adequately for the loss of Ronaldo.
Indifferent performances at the start of an Old Trafford career are hardly a problem unique to Valencia. The question for many players is whether they are able to overcome the increased weight of expectation that comes with playing for the world’s best-supported club.
Stage-fright says Nemanja Vidic, a man whom endured an equally shaky start to his United career after an £7.8 million move from CSKA Moscow in January 2007.
“At the beginning of the season, Antonio had some difficulties because he was bought to replace Cristiano Ronaldo,” said Vidic.
“The media paid special attention and were watching his every move, and the pressure paralysed him a little. He is a real artist, gradually gaining confidence and playing better and better with each match. Scoring will help him even more.”
Valencia’s record at Wigan and on the international stage – he has 40 caps for his native Ecuador – suggests a man big on talent but little in end-product in front of goal. The winger scored just seven in 89 appearances for Wigan and only a marginally more impressive return for the national team.
But if lack of goals is a concern then perhaps supporters are concentrating on the wrong aspects of Valencia’s game, says club captain Gary Neville. Where Ronaldo came to dominate both United’s goalscoring and tactical deployment, Valencia offers an altogether different proposition. A throwback to a day when wingers, were wingers, Neville argues.
“Antonio Valencia caused them [Moscow] problems after the break. He is strong and quick and an old fashioned winger who puts crosses in and is a constant threat to defenders,” said Neville after the victory over CSKA in Moscow.
Performances such as those delivered in the past week are likely to win round supporters grown used to high quality from the right in recent years. But unlike Ronaldo – and David Beckham previously – Valencia lacks the drive for stardom and celebrity. And while the Ecuadorian is less likely to seek fame off the pitch, the distinct lack of entourage surrounding Ferguson’s most-expensive summer signing comes as a welcome change.
“I think everyone is very pleased with what Antonio has done,” said defender Rio Ferdinand.
“He’s a really humble and quiet lad. He comes in, does his work and goes home. He is from the Paul Scholes mould of embracing hype and attention but he’s the most confident guy on the football field and he’s been very impressive since he arrived.”
“He’s playing very well and I’m sure he will keep improving and keep scoring goals.”
Ultimately it is Ferguson that will make or break Valencia, who won the fans’ voted FIFA World Cup 2006 Best Young Player. Naturally, the Scot is fully supportive of his new winger; perhaps even relieved to have a wide player dedicated to his art and not endorsements.
“Valencia has been a plus point for the last few weeks. He’s emerging very well, settling into the club, and his confidence is getting stronger,” said Ferguson.
“He has tremendous assets for a wide player, but the assets he didn’t show at Wigan were his goals, where he would maybe only get three or four a season.
“This was his challenge when he signed for us. Two in two games will help him.”
A winner at Anfield this weekend would be a special kind of hat-trick.