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Valencia's humility overshadows talent

KING OF THE WINGS
Sir Alex Ferguson: Valencia has many qualities that help United.
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James Horncastle

James Horncastle is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who specializes in coverage of the European game. His work has been prominently featured in The Guardian, FourFourTwo, and The Blizzard.

   
 

BLACKBURN, LANCASHIRE

The 4th installment in James Horncastle's month-long series documenting the Battle for Manchester.

 

There was a time when Antonio Valencia couldn’t pick his favorite goal for Manchester United.

“I’ve honestly enjoyed them all,” he said, smiling.

His humility is a reminder that, for all his class, this is a 26-year-old who grew up playing barefoot in Lago Agrio, an outpost of northeast Ecuador that has been spoiled by overzealous oil companies, a player who still feels lucky just to have made it here.

For all the modesty, the shyness and the selflessness he displays — he prefers laying on goals for his teammates, rather than scoring — there is that desire within Valencia to take a bit of the glory himself and be a hero. “I’d love to score an important goal for United in a final or a game that matters,” he said.

Valencia got his wish in the 81st minute at Ewood Park on Monday night. Coming inside from the wing, it was believed he’d cross as he approached the right-hand side of Blackburn’s penalty area. He shifted toward the byline, as fullback Martin Olsson backpedaled, then struck an almighty shot from an improbable angle. Caught by surprise, goalkeeper Paul Robinson felt it whoosh past his outstretched hand as he dived across the goal in the vain hope of stopping it.

By the time he’d realized the ball had come to rest in the corner of his net, Valencia was celebrating, tensing his muscles, then jumping into the arms of Rio Ferdinand. Valencia would go on to set up Ashley Young’s goal that ensured a massive win. United fully capitalized on Manchester City’s 3-3 draw with Sunderland the previous Saturday to move five points clear.

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“It was a long night,” Sir Alex Ferguson said after the match. “We had to persevere and persevere and we got our reward in the end, but I have to admit that I thought for a long time it wouldn’t come because we didn’t make any clear-cut chances. That goal (from Valencia) is so important, and it perhaps typifies the history of this club, that we kept going and got our reward in the end.”

It's interesting that, despite the colors sported by their title rivals and noisy neighbors, the blue-collar work ethic is on this United side. They get the job done come rain or shine. Valencia exemplifies these values. There’s nothing pretentious about his game, “no fannying,” as his former teammate Gary Neville puts it. The superfluous stepovers that Nani sometimes likes to indulge in aren’t Valencia’s thing. He’s direct, powerful and a throwback to a time when wingers stuck to powering up and down the sideline, leaving clouds of chalk in their wake.

Valencia reminds many of the decisive, impactful wingers who have played on Premier League-winning teams in the past two decades. It’s enough to think about the United of Andrei Kanchelskis, Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs; the Blackburn of Stuart Ripley and Jason Wilcox; the Arsenal of Marc Overmars or later Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires; the Chelsea of Damien Duff, Joe Cole and Arjen Robben; and, of course, the United of more recent memory with Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani.

Wing play is one of the areas City appear to be a little short. Aside from Adam Johnson and James Milner, the latter who has become more of a central midfielder, their squad lacks natural width. It’s not absolutely essential to a title contender, but on reflection, having the option to attack from different areas of the pitch is to be recommended.

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Valencia is emerging as the difference maker in this title race. He is the Premier League’s joint-leading assist provider with David Silva, at 14. But where City’s playmaker has faded down the stretch, the United wide player has come to the fore. To put that into perspective, 12 of Valencia’s assists have come since December.

But attacking isn’t the only part of Valencia’s game that United value.

“You get two sides to Antonio,” Ferguson said. “He is prepared to work really hard. He can tackle. He can run, but can also beat a man. He has got everything really. There’s a natural instinct in him to help out and defend. We know all about Antonio’s qualities as an attacker, but he’s so quick and so powerful that he’s also suited to a full-back role. He’s incredibly difficult to beat if you’re trying to get around him.”

The same might be said of United as a whole at the moment. Sunday’s match against QPR at Old Trafford (televised exclusively by Fox Soccer at 8:30 a.m. ET), provides them with the opportunity to go eight points clear of City ahead of their trip to Arsenal the following night.

United’s ability to ratchet up the stress and strain on their rivals at this stage of the season has been a hallmark of Ferguson’s tenure. Recalling the run-in of the 1995-96 title race, former Newcastle United defender Steve Howey told The Times: “There was something relentless about them. We rarely seemed to play on a Saturday so we’d see their results come in; Eric Cantona would always have scored another goal and Peter Schmeichel made another series of world-class saves. That was exactly what happened when they went to St James’ Park in March; We battered them, but they nicked a 1-0 win and eventually that puts pressure on you. It took a toll.”

City know exactly how that feels. Can they cope with it?

James Horncastle is a European soccer writer with articles published in The Blizzard, Champions magazine and FourFourTwo.

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