Antonio Valencia was first compared to Cristiano Ronaldo at the back end of the 2006 World Cup, when both players were among the nominees for the Young Player of the Tournament. Valencia won the fans vote – the English hate campaign towards Ronaldo could not have helped the Portugal winger’s cause – but both players lost out to eventual winner Lukas Podolski. The Ecuadorian went on to be named in the Team of the Tournament and a shining star had now been discovered.
Comparisons poured in when Valencia signed for United in the summer – after all, he was their only signing that could be deemed as Ronaldo’s replacement. Comparisons have not been as forthcoming in recent weeks because Valencia has begun to carve a name for himself, rather than being merely discarded as Ronaldo’s inferior substitute. Upon the winger’s arrival, much talk was made of whether he was good enough to adorn the Red Devils jersey, with many followers sighting his lack of goals for the Latics as one reason he may not succeed at Old Trafford.
Valencia’s potential was apparent in the early part of the season through his raw pace and crossing ability, but there was a major question mark over whether he was able to take his career to the next level. He was given a start in the first big game of the season at home to Arsenal and struggled to make an impact, appearing bereft of ideas and seeming to shrink into obscurity as the game went on. This was a real concern for the United faithful because you have to adore gracing the turf at Old Trafford if you wish to make it at the Theatre of Dreams. Many players with an abundance of prowess have struggled previously with the weight of expectation surrounding the players every time United take the field. It was a serious concern that Valencia would become a shrinking violet.
Now nearly four months on from the Arsenal encounter, Valencia looks very settled at his new club and is starting to have much more of an influence over proceedings. His goal against Wolves was his third in his last five Premier League outings and his contribution to United’s increasing goal difference over recent weeks can only be bettered by the likes of Wayne Rooney. His performances in the away matches against Portsmouth and West Ham were fantastic in terms of goals and assists but also in terms of the direct manner in which he took the game to his opponents. He is certainly heading in the right direction and his next step is to have more of an influence against the other top sides, especially on away soil. In last month’s trip to Stamford Bridge he failed to impress against Ashley Cole and United were unable to create anything clear-cut as a result. He has already shown he can turn potential into genuine performances and if he continues to progress then he will prove to be a very astute signing by Sir Alex.
All eyes will be on Craven Cottage on Saturday as United seek to make amends for last weekend’s loss to Villa and get back on track at Fulham – a fixture that promises to be a much sterner test than the one provided from Wolves, following Mick McCarthy’s much publicised team selection. Fulham’s win in the corresponding fixture last season will be fresh in their minds and with Bobby Zamora in good form, they are likely to take the game to United and test their makeshift defensive rearguard. Zamora was taken off late on in Fulham’s impressive win in midweek as a precautionary measure, but it is likely to be fit. United can take heart from the recent away performances at Fratton Park and Upton Park, and despite Portsmouth and West Ham loitering around the relegation zone compared to Fulham’s position in ninth, the way United ripped them apart indicated that this team certainly have the ingredients to win this division this season – not that we would expect anything less from them.
Valencia has been a key component for the Red Devils this campaign and United will look to utilise the Ecuadorians’ pace on the counter-attack against Roy Hodgson’s side. Having already lost four games this season, United can ill afford another slip up at Fulham and they will demand nothing but an away victory. When taking the title in 2006/07, United grabbed a last gasp winner in this fixture to put them in pole position for the title. The goal that day was scored by Ronaldo. Valencia will look to provide similar heroics so he can firmly quash the shadow of his predecessor.