Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Antonio Valencia emerging from Cristiano Ronaldo's shadow at Man United

Three down, 23 to go. That may be a harsh challenge for Antonio Valencia at Manchester United, but having walked through the door at Old Trafford just as Cristiano Ronaldo was heading the other way, the Ecuadorian will never escape the comparisons.

Sixteen games into his United career and the £17m summer signing from Wigan took his goals tally to three with the injury-time equaliser against CSKA Moscow on Tuesday.

The more impressive statistic is that the goal was Valencia’s third in five games. It shows he is beginning to adjust to life at United, despite the shadow cast by Ronaldo.

Sir Alex Ferguson has insisted often enough that Ronaldo is, and will continue to be, irreplaceable. Sixty-eight goals in his final two seasons at the club – the second of which was delayed for almost two months by an ankle injury – just underlines the impossible task facing whichever poor soul is asked to fill Ronaldo’s old right-wing spot at United.

Nani has tried and failed, Ji-sung Park offers ninety minutes of energy, but little attacking threat, while Gabriel Obertan is no more than three games into his United career.

Just try for a minute to erase the Ronaldo era and imagine it never happened. Who would Valencia then be measured against in terms of his progress?

David Beckham perhaps? Andrei Kanchelskis? Whoever you choose as the yardstick, the challenge is not quite so great as matching Ronaldo.

Beckham’s work-rate, peerless crossing and ability from set-pieces put ‘Goldenballs’ in a league of his own before Real Madrid came calling in 2003.

Kanchelskis was a lethal winger with blistering pace and an incredible ability to convert chances in front of goal. His hat-trick in a 5-0 demolition of Manchester City in 1994 encapsulated his quality and his controversial departure for Everton in 1995 was mourned by thousands of United supporters.

One thing that is obvious is that Valencia has a list of illustrious predecessors at United. But having initially appeared cowed and inhibited during his early outings for Ferguson’s team, Valencia is now growing into the role.

He is forming an understanding with full-backs Gary Neville and John O’Shea down the right and his crossing has improved markedly in the space of three months.

Valencia is brave, he has genuine strength and the confidence generated by his first goal for United – against Bolton last month – has lifted him onto another level.

The 24-year-old managed just seven goals in three seasons with Wigan, but he is almost halfway to that total at United. He even ‘did a Ronaldo’ by rescuing United with a spectacular late equaliser against CSKA.

But don’t compare him to Ronaldo. Don’t compare him to Beckham or Kanchelskis either. He is developing quickly in a United shirt and there is a sense that he is well on the way to making his own name at Old Trafford.

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