It has been a rocky journey to the top of English football for Luis Antonio Valencia. He started in a small town in the rainforests of Ecuador, dangerously near the epicentre of the Latin American cocaine trade, but now, at the age of 24, 4 years after playing for his local side El Nacional in Ecuador, he is at one of the biggest clubs in the world in the form of Manchester United.
When he came to Old Trafford last summer, there were no doubt great expectations on his shoulders as the replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo. The comparisons were slightly unfair as the departing Portuguese winger cost Madrid £80m while Valencia was bought for a small figure in comparison. Such was the fate of the Ecuadorian international though as he started the season for the Red Devils and with the wait of expectation on his shoulders, it took him some time to get used to the surroundings at the Premier League champions.
The first 12 games of Valencia’s Manchester United career went without him hitting the back of the net, although he had pace, skill, crossing ability and had a work rate which was unparalleled, the spectre of Ronaldo over him loomed large but it was clear from the outset that Valencia was an altogether different player. According to his former manager at Wigan Steve Bruce, comparisons should be made to another famous United right winger:
I’d say he is more like my Manchester United team-mate in the early Nineties, Andrei Kanchelskis. Andrei was quick, strong and able to steam past a defender. Antonio is similar. His stats at Wigan were phenomenal. He ran further than anyone else, worked harder than anyone else and did it all at pace.
Valencia was unconcerned about his lack of goals in his early months at Old Trafford but it was clear from the manager Sir Alex Ferguson what direction he wanted the Ecuadorian winger to go in:
He [Ferguson] told me I must concentrate more in training and in matches, that I must try to score goals at every opportunity but also help my team-mates to score. So I’m practising all the time. I practice with my team-mates and I like to improve and get better with it.
It looks like such practice has paid off. In recent months Valencia has scored 6 goals in 12 matches, not bad for a player who scored only seven goals in his entire three year stay at Wigan. Playing in a better team has definitely improved his opportunities in front of goal but it seems, just going by the finish against Wolves last night, he does have the aptitude to apply a finish when he is called upon to. Ronaldo was a right forward rather than a right winger like Valencia and we will certainly not ever see the Ecuadorian scoring the 40 goals a season that the Portuguese player achieved during his exceptional career at United, but there is no doubt in my mind that Valencia can score at least 15 to 20 goals if he stays fit and in the team.
There have been suggestions in his earlier career that he is capable of such feats. Playing for the Ecuador U-20s, he scored 17 goals in 23 appearances from midfield, but since his move to Europe he has failed to recapture that scoring record. He also scored two on his international debut but has only scored 4 since, although 2 have come in three appearances this season. It certainly appears that Valencia is developing a knack for scoring after many years where the finishing touch has been absent, and it is something that Ferguson himself is keen to encourage, going by his comments after the Wolves game last night.
Antonio’s improvement is tremendous. He’s expansive in his game and he’s expressing himself really well. . . It was a terrific finish. Antonio’s now got six goals and he can still improve on that because he’s a very good finisher as we often see in training.
Certainly such an appraisal from your manager can only push Valencia onto bigger and better things, and United fans will hope that in the coming weeks and months he can continue his rich vein of form in front of goal to assist his side in the pursuit of another League title.