Manchester United team-mates heap praise on Antonio Valencia

 

Manchester United duo Ashley Young and Rafael have joined forces to heap praise on team-mate Antonio Valencia.

In a season that looks increasingly like ending with United becoming the first team to crash through the 20-title barrier, the question of who is their player-of-the-year is a real head-scratcher.

Even with 28 goals, Wayne Rooney cannot be regarded as an automatic selection.

Nani and Young flickered at times without producing consistent performances, Rio Ferdinand has gone about his business in a quietly effective way and David de Gea would be in contention for that magnificent save at Chelsea in February alone were it not for the woeful early performances as he tried to adjust to the Premier League's physicality.

That Jonny Evans and Michael Carrick - effective players but not really sprinkled with stardust - are so prominent in a potentially glorious year says it all.

Valencia was making only his 20th Barclays Premier League appearance of the season against Blackburn last night, 16 of which have been starts. In percentage terms, that is 65% and 52% respectively.

But there is a strong argument to suggest the Ecuador winger has done more than anyone to advance United's cause with his assists, goals and even a willingness to defend, given he collected a booking last night attempting to halt a Blackburn counter-attack.

Little wonder Rooney loves playing with him, or that Young and Rafael were so happy to sing his praises.

"Antonio was brilliant and he got his rewards with a goal," said Young.

Rafael added: "He just plays his natural game and gets better and better all the time."

So wary are opponents now of Valencia's crossing ability, they have started to stand off a little bit, offering him space to charge into.

As Wolves found to their cost a fortnight ago and Blackburn last night, it is a highly dubious tactic as Valencia is more than capable of scoring himself.

"As a fellow winger I will give him it as a shot," said Young of last night's effort, when Valencia cut in off the right flank and struck a ferocious shot from a narrow angle that beat Paul Robinson at his far post.

"Maybe the keeper wasn't expecting a shot from that distance," said Rafael.

"That is why it went in."

In his limited English - the one obvious negative for a player who has spent nearly six years in this country now - Valencia said it was "50-50" when asked if it was a shot or a cross, reinforcing Sir Alex Ferguson's theory that he went for the area, with pace, knowing if he did not score himself there was a decent chance a desperate defender might do the job as he tried to clear.

The outcome was a goal that triggered joyous scenes amongst the 7,000-strong travelling support and the type of fist pumping Ferguson only reserves for the most notable triumphs.

Prior to his side's visit to the Etihad Stadium on April 30, their only away game is next Wednesday against a Wigan team they have beaten on all 14 previous meetings between the two clubs.

In addition, they have three matches at Old Trafford, which means Manchester City have a trio of games away from the Etihad.

Five points behind and with a previously vast goal difference advantage wiped out, merely trying to end a run of two away wins in nine games is not an option for Roberto Mancini's under-fire side, which means beating Arsenal at the Emirates on Sunday.

By then though, United will be eight points ahead if they beat a QPR side who benefited from last night's result by moving out of the bottom three.

Yet QPR have won just once in 25 competitive games at Old Trafford - when Dennis Bailey scored a hat-trick in a 4-1 win two decades ago.

Little wonder the United supporters are becoming increasingly excited, even if Ferguson's mantra of one game at a time is being heeded by his players.

"It was a massive result," said Young.

"We knew if we won it would put us five points clear at the top.

"But QPR is a big game and it is not going to be easy.

"We could go eight points clear, which at this stage of the season is huge."

PA

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