Sir Alex Ferguson was thinking about his shoes. "I lost my shoes, the rain-sodden shoes," he remembered with affection yesterday, recalling the time that Manchester United had last travelled to Moscow, left town clutching the Champions League trophy but – for reasons that remain unclear – left the manager's footwear behind.
Antonio Valencia has also had some size nines on his mind but they are someone else's and they have been in his thoughts since the day he was signed to replace Cristiano Ronaldo this summer. It was a monumental undertaking for an Ecuadorian who had known no environment more pressurised than the right touchline at Wigan Athletic but for 10 minutes last night you saw why Ferguson thinks he might be up to the job.
Valencia does not really do swagger: the tendency to linger on the wing in a way that Ronaldo never did somehow sums up a player who is not yet hard-wired to the intricate, geometrical interplay that United specialise in. While Ronaldo was at the axis of all those triangles, Valencia has been perpendicular to them, tucked out on the wing, awaiting his chance.
On Saturday he took it and moved inside, right into the Bolton Wanderers penalty area in fact, and scored his first goal for United. Last night a minute before Valencia had put away his second goal in as many games, there was another period of play that revealed just what he can do. It was a searing, five-touch move between Valencia and Nani, who between them shepherded the ball right through the heart of the CSKA defence, freeing Valencia for a shot that thundered against the home side's crossbar with a velocity that seemed to shake the stadium's foundations. It was a wonderful moment; one that made the heart soar in a way that United's football simply has not not since Ronaldo packed up his make-up bag and flew off into the sunset.
Here was the prospect which Ferguson will have hoped for in the prodigal son's absence but which had looked far off as Valencia laboured in the early weeks of the season. No one said the 24-year-old would manage 40 goals a season like Ronaldo but he has actually looked like a stranger at times, hugging that touchline like a traditional winger. The club's former striker Frank Stapleton is among those who believe that when you arrive at Old Trafford you have to learn to play the United way. "You have to change a little bit," he said, with Valencia in mind.
Of course, when you lack the self-belief of Ronaldo it must tempting to stick at what you know and Valencia appears to be the kind of withdrawn individual who will take time to see himself in the new incarnation. For now, the work ethic – in abundance last night – offers something United could certainly never rely on in Ronaldo and there is a physicality that we never saw in the former No 7, either. There might not yet be quite the percentage of accurate crosses, but there are more tackles, more blocks, fewer histrionics.
There are hidden depths, as well. Stapleton has been impressed by Valencia's performances for Ecuador in a central midfield role where he looks less isolated and his role as a proven centre-forward for his country is little known. All of this potential and more was revealed by his match-winning strike last night when he fastened on to Dimitar Berbatov's angular header and delivered a volleyed goal almost as sharp as that sublime strike from close quarters against Bolton.
Ferguson was not going overboard after the game. "We're just pleased that Valencia's got an important goal for us," he said. But he has grounds to believe his £16m acquisition might be the coming man at Old Trafford.Reuse content