Slow-burner Valencia shows signs of joining United greats

The winger might not look comfortable in the limelight but he shone yesterday
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The Independent Football

It was the sight of Wayne Rooney that took the eye just before half- time, his triumphal punch towards the blue shirts telling them that this is the way he will silence those who give him abuse for England's poor summer.

It is only when fans discern a weakness in a player that they will risk the kind of abuse, like the "you fat bastard" chant that rained down on Rooney in the sunshine. When he was racing away to claim the Players' and Football Writers' Player of the Year award last year, no one dared breach a rule of hushed respect. Now they sensed a flaw. He put them right on that score.

So, yes, Rooney took the eye, although he was not the only one punching the air at that moment, as United took the lead. Antonio Valencia, who had just scored from Rooney's cross, is not the kind of player to invite much attention. He first drove into Old Trafford in the three-year-old BMW he had had at Wigan, and there's something about him – from the innate shyness to that unusual gait, with his toes turned in – which still doesn't proclaim him as an individual who is conscious that he is a superstar.

But this was Valencia's afternoon and one which provided hints that the man who was so desperate to avoid the Cristiano Ronaldo tag when he inherited his role on the right wing last season might be on the cusp of graduating from a good Manchester United player into a great one.

Valencia was certainly aided yesterday by Ashley Cole's curiously suicidal positional play which, with the defender continually tucking well inside the Chelsea box, allowed five yards of left flank turf to run at him.

His first cross was plucked out of the air by Henrique Hilario but the second picked out Paul Scholes with the same unerring accuracy which led Rooney to state in the second half of last season that Valencia was the player he most liked to have in the United team with him. Inexplicably, Scholes smashed his volley over.

The choreography on that right wing, with Valencia pointing out to his partnering full-back John O'Shea exactly where he should be, said something about the way he has grown into his club and is actually settled enough now to heed the words Sir Alex Ferguson gave him when he first arrived: "Enjoy, it, enjoy Manchester. Do things well."

Ferguson also worked with him on the shooting, which had seen him score only seven goals in three years at Wigan, although 21 games without finding the net for United did not inspire immediate confidence in that regard.

In the end, there were six goals last season and the calmness and not inconsiderable technical skill with which he shaped up to Rooney's low cross just before the interval and sent it straight into the net, right footed, illustrated the difference that a year at Old Trafford has made. Typically, it was the cross rather than the finish which Ferguson had noticed: "I don't think Antonio could have missed that cross. You are hoping he'll be in the centre and fortunately he was."

The improved finishing is the part of Valencia which United have made. The aspect which was there all along – and which marks him out as more of an Andrei Kanchelskis than a Ronaldo – came in the work he put in back in his own half. Valencia became more of a utility right-back, not right winger, as the game wore on and O'Shea was sucked into the area to meet the threat which accompanied Chelsea's late resurgence in the game. This is unheralded work – the tackle won on the touchline just before half-time to start a move which saw Rooney set up a chance for Michael Owen was typical of a half-dozen interventions – but part of the same ethic which made those at Wigan marvel at his match stats. "He ran further than anyone else, worked harder than anyone else and did it at pace," Steve Bruce once said of the player he inherited from Paul Jewell at Wigan.

When Valencia ran on to O'Shea's ball and levelled the cross which Javier Hernandez converted, he drifted out of camera shot again and it was hard to resist the sight of the Mexican, hand over mouth with embarrassment at having scored in such a madcap fashion. Since it was Valencia who also set up Hernandez's goal in Dublin last week, the new boy has reason to share Rooney's delight at seeing an Ecuadorian name on the team sheet. And since this was the product of Valencia's full 90 minutes of football for four months, after missing his club's United States tour with the ankle injury which saw last season end prematurely, he might not be invisible for much longer.

Man-for-man marking


Henrique Hilario

Does not have the presence of Cech, and the Chelsea back four seemed more hesitant as a result. Little he could do about United's three goals 7

Paulo Ferreira

Reliable as ever at right- back even when up against Nani in the second half. But rarely pushed forward to support the attack 7

Branislav Ivanovic

Chelsea's first-choice right- back looked unconvincing in the heart of their defence. However, he forced a fine save from Van der Sar with a first-half header 6

John Terry

His uncertain pre-season form continued with another costly mistake, allowing Rooney to cross for Valencia's opener 6

Ashley Cole

Had a poor game. Twice caught out of position in the opening 10 minutes, then the England left-back was also off the pace for Valencia's opening goal 5

Michael Essien

Not up to the speed of the game after eight months out with injury. No lack of confidence, however. Hit a wonderful pass to set up Sturridge late on 6

John Obi Mikel

Another tidy but unimposing display from the Nigerian. His place is most under threat from the imminent arrival of Ramires 5

Frank Lampard

Quiet game and was clearly playing within himself, aware of the long season ahead. Kept Chelsea on the offensive despite the goals going in at the back 6

Salomon Kalou

Failed to rediscover the fine form he showed at the end of last season. But did manage a late goal, when Van der Sar parried Sturridge's shot 7

Nicolas Anelka

Doesn't like playing as a lone striker, and it showed. Came closest to scoring with an early shot that Van der Sar could not hold 6

Florent Malouda

Subdued and then subbed. Went close with a low shot early in the second half but other than that looked a shadow of the devastating player of last season 6


Didier Drogba (for Mikel, 60): Another star name playing at 70 per cent. Missed the one chance he had 6

Daniel Sturridge (for Anelka, 60): Lively performance but missed a wonderful late opportunity 7

Yossi Benayoun (for Malouda, 72): Composed on ball but dropped deep and was unable to impose himself 6

Other substitutes Yuri Zhirkov (for Cole, 79); Jeffrey Bruma (for Ferreira, 79)

Manchester United

Edwin van der Sar

Shaky start. But United owed their win to his brilliant left-handed save from Ivanovic and instinctive right-footed stop from Sturridge 8

John O'Shea

The weak link in United's defence. Needed support from Valencia and slow to react when Kalou pounced for Chelsea's goal 5

Nemanja Vidic

The captain commanded in the air, silencing Anelka. Two superb blocks and a great tackle in the last 10 minutes when defensive changes wreaked chaos 7

Jonny Evans

As unruffled as he always seems to be at centre-back, but the Irish defender struggled against Sturridge when switched to left-back 6

Fabio da Silva

Undaunted by Essien and Kalou running at him down United's left and less inclined to dive in than his twin brother; less threatening going forward, too 6

Antonio Valencia

Capitalised on Ashley Cole's poor positional play. Aggressive tackling when he tracked back and fine distribution capped by a goal and an assist 9

Michael Carrick

Won the midfield battle with Essien. Awareness and timing in the tackle augurs well for a make-or-break season for him 7

Paul Scholes

Forget the missed, gilt-edged chance he volleyed over. Distribution was sublime, including the 40-yard pass from which Rooney set up United's first 8

Park Ji-sung

Struggled to find a route past Essien and Kalou as he drifted into a central role. Not one of the South Korean's better days 5

Michael Owen

Busy across the front line without posing any great threat, though after a summer nursing his hamstring injury will be pleased to have come through this 6

Wayne Rooney

Ignored the abuse to forage and run in a way not seen since his ankle injury in Munich five months ago. Excellent assist for Valencia's goal 7


Javier Hernandez (for Park, h-t): Exquisite reverse pass to announce his arrival at United, then scored 7

Dimitar Berbatov (for Rooney, h-t): Beautiful control and lobbed finish 7

Chris Smalling (for Fabio, 71): Shaky amid late onslaught 4

Nani (for Owen, ht): Dispossessed for goal, fine assist 5

Other substitutes Darren Fletcher (for Carrick, 79); Ryan Giggs (for Scholes, 79)