Manchester United got their Europa League campaign underway on Thursday night with a “very ordinary” performance, according to Sir Alex Ferguson which saw them beat Ajax 2-0. Unfortunately, that game saw the Red Devils lose one of their star performers of this season as Antonio Valencia suffered a hamstring injury which will see him sidelined for around four weeks.
Valencia – who came on as a second-half substitute for the returning Ashley Young – said after the game: “After my last injury experiences I feared the worst” – he was not alone as many United fans collectively took a deep breath – remembering that horrendous ankle injury the Ecuadorian suffered 17 months ago against Rangers.
It has, in many respects, been a season where injuries have dominated and threatened to strangle the Manchester United squad – with the majority of the first-team regulars spending time on the sidelines this season – Rafael, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Tom Cleverley, Nani, Ashley Young, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez to name but a few of whom have graced the physio’s table in recent months.
Speaking about Valencia’s injury – Rio Ferdinand said: “It’s a really big blow” before adding, “but when somebody gets injured or loses form at this club the manager can always call upon another player to perform” With the return of Nani and Ashley Young to the side, following their recent injuries, Ferdinand is correct but that does not account for how productive and understated the 26 year-old has been in his contributions for the Red Devils this season.
When called upon, Valencia has had to put in a couple of admirable shifts at right-back for United, but it is on the right of midfield where he really flourishes with his marauding runs forward, before unleashing a cross into the centre of the penalty area to find a team-mate. It all began with a hat-trick of assists against Wolves – and since then he has had 9 assists in his last 11 Premier League games. This puts Valencia third in the league table of assists behind David Silva (12) and Emmanuel Adebayor (10) – and one ahead of team-mate Ryan Giggs (8).
Of course, Manchester United being Manchester United, and with the injury crisis of earlier in the season averted it will be up to Nani to step into the breach left by Valencia. Many will argue correctly, that the Portuguese is a different animal in comparison to the Ecuadorian; his trickery is testament to this – rather than the direct approach undertaken by Valencia of the ball being whipped into, Nani will try to outwit defenders with his fancy footwork and walk the ball into the box. Something which Duncan White of The Sunday Telegraph has already alluded to on this site: “He does the simple things really well for a winger. You see so many wingers cutting inside, trying to be clever. He just goes to the byline and pulls it back.”
Regardless, the loss of an underrated Antonio Valencia represents a sizeable blow for Manchester United.
This piece was orginally written and posted on BT Life’s a Pitch