Antonio Valencia at centre of every threat posed by champions Manchester United

 

There are worse men to be dependent on than Luis Antonio Valencia. For 80 minutes last night he created almost every Manchester United chance, the best attacker in a team desperate to extend their lead at the top of the league.

And when, with 10 minutes left, Valencia grew tired of trying to set up a goal, he simply scored one himself. Who says that creation has to be indirect?

The Ecuadorean winger, unambiguously the league's best traditional wide player, has re-emerged in the last month or so as one of United's best attackers.

Last night, he was at the heart, but on the flank, of everything that was good about United. His running and crossing were better than anyone else's, but not good enough to give United the lead, before he supplied that too.

Manchester United's best opportunity of the first half came thanks to the direct simplicity of Valencia's game. Free in space on the right wing, he drilled it low into the box. Javier Hernandez touched the ball on, and gasped as it first the post and then the equally static Paul Robinson.

It was the closest United came in a frustrating opening half. Their other best moments were also owed to the man signed from Wigan Athletic: a cross to the far post which Phil Jones headed wide, a ball inside to Michael Carrick which nearly won a penalty from Scott Dann's arm.

 

The imbalance was no coincidence. Whenever one of United's smarter footballers, whether Carrick, Paul Scholes or Wayne Rooney, had the ball, they knew their best route to goal, and could always find Valencia in space.

The frustration, though, for United, was that there was no other way. They went into the game with a self-defeating midfield: two expert passers in Carrick and Scholes aligned behind Jones. This was only ever going to be an evening for incision, and so Jones' qualities were not obviously needed. There are times when you need three midfielders, and times when you do not.

The formation imbalance, while elevating Valencia to the role of chief creator, also gave him frustratingly few options in the box.

For over an hour, United had only one centre-forward. Hernandez is very good at many things, but he is not the best possible target for crosses. Through the second half United continued to roll the ball to Valencia, and he fired cross after cross into a sparse box. United brought on Danny Welbeck, Ryan Giggs and Ashley Young. But the supporting cast was not enough. Valencia had been asked to make goals for his team-mates all night, and, with 10 minutes left, realised that he could offer no more polite invitations and must instead do it himself.

So, running yet again into the box from the right, and seeing Martin Olsson turning his back, he took it upon himself to go for goal. Channelling all his muscle, all his frustration, all his responsibility into his right boot, he lashed the ball into the far corner of the goal. Never mind the angle, the distance, or the stakes. The last nine minutes were a different game, and Young scored a second, but the man responsible for the victory was never in doubt.

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