By Sam Lee
It is almost a year to the day since Antonio Valencia tore Wolves apart at Molineux as Manchester United ran riot on their way to a 5-0 victory last March. The Ecuadorian was at the heart of everything United did well that day, scoring a barn-storming opening goal and displaying his varied crossing ability by setting up Danny Welbeck and Chicharito.
Although they were powerless to resist Valencia et al on that spring afternoon, the days of Wolves mixing it with the Premier League big boys seem long gone now, especially as they are in serious danger of suffering a second relegation in two seasons.
Things haven't been quite as disastrous for Valencia, it must be said, but it does appear as though that kind of dominant performance has been consigned to the past.
At his peak he was something of an oddity; a true, old-fashioned winger the likes of which Europe's top clubs have shunned over the past five years. It was pretty one dimensional stuff, but what a dimension it was. Armed with not much more than pace, strength, and an unerring right foot, Valencia would fly down the wing, lead counterattacks or beat his marker on the byline and put in a pin-point cross.
After a tremendous maiden season at Old Trafford, which earned him a place in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year, his United career was called into question when he fractured, dislocated and damaged ligaments in his ankle just a month into his second campaign.
It was the kind of horrific injury that television directors refuse to show replays of, and many wondered if he would be able to rediscover his impressive form.
He certainly was, and after seven months of intense rehabilitation in the gym, Valencia was back in the United line-up the following March. He returned a more solid player, far more muscly than before his injury. His new-found strength seemed to make him quicker, and his ability to pick out the head of Wayne Rooney was uncanny. He was a crossing machine, and not a left-back in the land could do anything about it, no matter how simple it looked.
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Sir Alex Ferguson, who had seen his side go four points clear of Manchester City that day, hailed the impact of his winger.
"He could be very important in the title race," the manager said after the match. "He is such an honest, hardworking player.
"You get two sides to Antonio. He is prepared to work really hard. He can tackle, he can run, but he can also beat a man. He has got everything really."But another year on and things could not be more different. Last weekend against Chelsea he had nothing. It was his worst performance in a United shirt, and maybe even the worst of any United player in recent history. That is some feat considering he came on at half-time and was on the same pitch as Tom Cleverley, who had an absolute stinker of his own.
Valencia has been off colour all season. It is almost as though the Premier League left-back association, tired of being made to look like fools, called a meeting over the summer and decided that they wouldn't let him shift the ball onto his right foot and whip in a cross any longer. Like Ryu shorn of his Hadouken, Valencia is nowhere near as dangerous without his special move.
Instead, he will almost stand still in front of his marker and rely on Rafael to come haring down the outside to provide the attacking verve. His goal threat has dried up entirely; he's had just five shots all season, one of which was on target, and he has missed two clear-cut opportunities.
The flight path between Valencia's right foot and Rooney's forehead has been disrupted by Robin van Persie's landing in M16. Although it would be too simplistic to suggest the Dutchman's arrival has been entirely responsible for the Ecuadorian's decline, it is fair to say it has had some impact.
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Van Persie, however, is happy to play with his back to goal and control the ball with his feet, or latch on to a low cross that can be sidefooted into the back of the net. The gameplan has changed, and Valencia is struggling to adapt.
But it has not been a vintage year for United's other wingers. Ashley Young and Nani have struggled with injuries, and have often frustrated when they have been on the pitch. With Wilfried Zaha due to arrive at Old Trafford at the end of the season, all three widemen will have due cause to look over their shoulder.
The 20-year-old is as big a unit as Valencia, but with the added bonus of being able to dribble past defenders to the left or right. Sir Alex, always with the future in mind, will have mapped out which role the Crystal Palace youngster will fulfill at United. At the moment, there is nothing to suggest that Valencia has a long-term starting berth at Old Trafford.
Like Wayne Rooney, who the manager is privately willing to let go at the end of the season, Valencia's current contract expires in two years' time, meaning that a decision over his future is likely to be made this summer.
If he does not prove that he can fit in with Sir Alex's latest vision, he may find his next contract offer will come from another club.
It would be premature to write him off just yet, but as United rally following their Champions League exit and capitulation against Chelsea, Valencia, more than most, has a lot to prove in the coming months.
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