By Mark Young.
It is that time of the season where the term “squeaky bum time” is used in abundance around Manchester United. Especially this year where results have been ground out and with numerous injuries, it was looking like the end of the season was going to be very “squeaky” this time round. The silver lining for United during this spell is that Luis Antonio Valencia has returned and settled back in immediately.
Sir Alex Ferguson said at the weekend after Man United’s incredible comeback that Valencia had West Ham “on toast.” He was all over Wayne Bridge with his direct approach, raw power and pace. For someone who suffered such a horrendous injury, breaking his ankle against Rangers in September, Valencia has looked fit and ready for the fight that is the final stretch of the new season.
Before his return against Arsenal, Ferguson admitted he could not wait to have his winger back. He said, “He was fantastic last season, absolutely brilliant, He was a great signing, he really was. “Basically, having him back is like having a new signing. He brings a new dimension to the team’s play and offers a different approach to Nani’s skill driven performances. Sir Alex said, “The great thing about him was he takes the ball with such great strength and balance. He can take the ball up to the other end of the pitch for you. We missed that pace and acceleration.”[i]
More importantly, he brings the best out of players around him. Wayne Rooney is hitting form at the right time and his understanding with the Ecuadorian, as shown last season with his copious amount of goals from Valencia crosses, means that the two of them will be vital in the run in.
The way the Ecuadorian has worked his way back to fitness and form is incredible if you take in to account other players that have been out for a few months and struggled to keep up.
Fernando Torres has had niggling injuries for the last 18 months and has struggled for any kind of form. He is yet to score for Chelsea since his £50 million transfer from Liverpool in January and still looks out of place. In fact, the only game that he has looked back to his best was against Chelsea for Liverpool at Anfield in November. He is, no doubt, world class but is severely lacking confidence and without a quick start after injury he seems to be trying too hard, which is the complete opposite of United’s number 25. Valencia looks like he has not been away and if one thing doesn’t work he doesn’t get frustrated. He gets back up and tries again. He has back in with seemingly relative ease. Torres’ time will come again, but not until he is fully fit, and the confidence is flowing. The price tag is doing him no favours, either and he is clearly a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Another example is Owen Hargreaves. A string of different injuries has got fans questioning whether he is ever going to play at the top level again. He was brilliant in the 2008 Champions League final and Sir Alex has clearly been patient. When he made his return against Wolves this season, many fans were surprised but I for one couldn’t wait. But as soon as it began, it was over. He pulled up. Another injury. Ferguson has admitted that Hargreaves is struggling in self belief now and maybe the boss wishes the return to fitness of Hargreaves would have gone as easily as Valencia’s. Maybe its psychological with Hargreaves, maybe he needs the same belief Valencia seems to have, but that is easier said than done. If it does happen, it will take a super human effort from the midfielder. The question would be, is he up for the fight? Does he believe? And do United believe in him enough, to hand him a new contract this summer, when the current deal runs out?
Before Rooney was injured, almost a year ago now, in Munich in the Champions League quarter final first leg against Bayern, he was becoming the deadliest striker on the planet. He was scoring all types of goals but it seemed, all of a sudden that he could also use his head to devastating effect. This was mainly due to the amount of high class balls Valencia was delivering. When Rooney’s goal tally was increasing, Valencia’s assist tally did the same. This was no coincidence. But when he made his return this year something wasn’t clicking, he needed Valencia.
Speaking last season, Rooney said, “I couldn’t have scored the amount of goals I have this season without him. He’s been great this year and the quality of balls he puts in the box for me has been unbelievable.”[ii]
Straight from the horse’s mouth says it all really. He is appreciated by his team mates and his hard work is admired and having both vital cogs back in the machine, with Rooney and Valencia should see United cross the finishing line, with the tally of goals and assists rising again.
It will be refreshing to once again see Nani and Valencia running down the wings to provide high class, quality balls for Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Chicharito. The injuries that are hampering United at the back right now will definitely give cause for concern for the remainder of the season, but the threat that the wingers and strikers possess in going forward should see the “squeaking” stay to a minimum for the United faithful in the hunt for glory.
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[ii]Wayne Rooney quote via soccernet