Armed with pace, power and dizzying chicanery, Antonio Valencia is one of the leading exponents of wingplay.
The Ecuadorian has established himself as one of United’s most potent attacking weapons since his arrival at Old Trafford in the summer of 2009.
His transfer curtailed a three-year stint at Wigan Athletic, where he had piqued manager Paul Jewell’s interest with a series of impressive performances in central midfield in Ecuador’s campaign at the 2006 World Cup.
Though his performances earned him a nomination for FIFA’s Best Young Player award, Valencia was only a bit-part player at Villarreal and had gone into the tournament after a successful loan spell with Recreativo Huelva in Spain’s second tier.
It required another loan deal to take him to Wigan, but Antonio impressed sufficiently as the Latics excelled in their first Premier League campaign and he made a permanent move to the JJB Stadium as Steve Bruce took over from Jewell.
In his three seasons at Wigan, Valencia made 83 appearances, scoring seven times and catching the eye of several bigger clubs. Antonio turned down the chance to join Real Madrid, but couldn’t resist the opportunity to move to Old Trafford in the summer of 2009.
Hopes that a superb maiden season could be replicated were dashed when he suffered an horrific ankle injury in United’s Champions League draw with Rangers in September 2010. However, Valencia made a breathtaking return to fitness and form within six months.
He played a key role as the Reds regained the Premier League title – making him a league champion for the first time – and he ended a topsy-turvy campaign with fittingly mixed emotions, starting his first Champions League final but tasting defeat against Barcelona.
Valencia’s third season at Old Trafford proved his most eye-catching, as a glut of assists took United to within a whisker of a 20th league title, and his personal excellence was rewarded with a clean sweep at the club’s end-of-season awards bash, where he picked up the fans’ and players’ player of the year gongs as well as the goal of the season award.
Michael Owen’s departure in the summer of 2012 gave Antonio the chance to inherit the Reds’ famous no.7 shirt, marking another lunge forward in the Ecuadorian’s rise to prominence.
Perhaps the pressure of such a jersey weighed down on his considerably-sized shoulders as his consistency dipped slightly throughout the course of the season. However, like every top player, Valencia recaptured top form just at the right time, playing a key role in vital wins at Stoke City and West Ham to help secure the title in April.
The following season 2013/14 was not quite as productive for the Ecuadorian, who had reverted to the no.25 shirt, as the Reds endured a tough campaign following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. Valencia was, however, a regular fixture in new manager David Moyes’ XI and started the season well bagging a goal in United’s 4-2 home win over Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League.
Unfortunately, these kind of results were to become all too rare in what would become a season to forget for the Reds. Still, Valencia’s season finished positively on a personal note as he not only received a call-up for Ecuador’s World Cup squad but also penned a new contract that will keep him at the club until at least June 2017.
Antonio’s is a journey which has taken him from the Amazon Basin to the banks of the River Irwell, which only goes to show that Valencia is no stranger to hard work, and few would bet against the winger re-capturing his best form in 2014/15.