Sir Alex Ferguson delivered mixed news on the injury front today, with Antonio Valencia now training with the reserves ahead of a potential first team return in March but Park Ji-Sung now ruled out for a month with a hamstring injury. Bittersweet news of course, although the sum total could still mean his Manchester United team is better equipped for the Premier League and European run-in.
“We got a blow on Saturday morning with the news that Ji-sung Park did his hamstring on Friday afternoon in training,” confirmed the 69-year-old United manager.
“It was very unfortunate because it was his last kick of the ball in training as well. We were really looking forward to having him back after being away for a month at the Asian Cup. He’ll be out for up to a month, which is a blow to us.
“The good news is that Valencia started training with the Reserves on Saturday. So he’s on his way back and that will be a real boost to have him available for the run-in.”
Valencia’s return on schedule after the agonising leg break and ankle dislocation suffered against Rangers in September adds not only to Ferguson’s attacking options but the flexibility of United’s squad. The Ecuadorian’s pace, eye for goal and – perhaps crucially – potential to ignite Wayne Rooney into a goalscoring run could prove the difference come May.
After all, Valencia’s sound delivery from the right-wing in no small part contributed to Rooney’s 34-goal haul last season, with the former Evertonian scoring an uncanny number of headed goals.
That said, United’s ability to cope with Valencia’s absence this season is not in doubt; a permanent switch to the right has brought greater consistency to Nani’s game and Ryan Giggs’ evergreen presence has provided some stability on the left, even if Ferguson’s options are limited.
Meanwhile, Park’s injury reduces – at a minimum – Ferguson’s alternatives in midfield, especially in European away matches where the South Korean has tended to play in a ‘defensive attacking’ role. Park is no doubt a negative choice on United’s win, offering much less in attacking creative output that some of Ferguson’s alternatives. Yet, the 29-year-old remains a key defensive tool in Ferguson’s tactical planning.
Even with Valencia at his disposal Ferguson faces something of a tactical dilemma in the coming weeks, presuming the players returns to last season’s level of consistency. After all, Nani is thriving on the right-side of United’s midfield, not only scoring but creating too. Indeed, the Portuguese has hit the net 11 times this season, contributed 13 direct assists and been involved in the build up in 31 of United’s 32 Premier League goals when the 25-year-old has started. These are impressive statistics on any level.
Switching Nani to the left not only risks upsetting the player’s form but potentially unbalancing United’s attack in crucial matches away from home. Ferguson’s desire for United to never be outnumbered in midfield is paramount and in that context, it’ll be a brave move by the Scot to deploy both Nani and Valencia in key away fixtures against Marseille, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, presuming fitness on both players’ part.
Indeed, recent history says that the Scot will adopt a wholly negative approach in those games, seeking first and foremost to protect United’s four-point Premier League lead and even up the tactical battle against teams that will each deploy three men in central midfield.
Moreover, Park has played a crucial role in some of United’s biggest fixtures in recent seasons, such as the Reds’ two-legged victory over AC Milan this time last season.
Whatever the tactical choices, Valencia’s return is a personal triumph for the player, who has become both with United’s fans and in the dressing room. The former Wigan Athletic winger’s unassuming nature, initially seen as potentially inhibiting on the pitch, is heartily welcomed by supporters keen to see performances not ‘brand development’.
The players return comes with a word of warning though. Positive as the news surely is, it may still prove a long road. After all, neither Dion Dublin nor Alan Smith made it at Old Trafford following similar injuries. Neither had Valencia’s talent of course but in elite sport inherent talent is only one part of the picture.