Rarely in my travels have I seen such an obsession for one football player in Ecuador’s infatuation for Antonio Valencia.
The Manchester United right back/winger is lauded as “the best player in the world” up here in the Andes and receives the type of attention usually only reserved for Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.
They are rightly proud of their man from Lago Agrio who rose from poverty to play for one of the biggest football teams in the world. It helps that by all accounts Valencia seems to be a very grounded and pleasant person.
In the national newspapers Valencia’s every match and any public utterance is covered in detail. The slightest hint of injury verges can create national panic, especially in the lead up to a World Cup qualifier.
Valencia’s career rise has not been meteoric but more measured progress. After climbing through the youth ranks and into the first team with Quito based El Nacional (The Ecuadorian army team of which Valencia was a soldier) , Antonio won a move to then Spanish giants Villarreal. With limited opportunity available at the Madrigal he was farmed out to Recreativo de Huelva then loaned and signed by Wigan in the EPL. After 3 years impressing for Wigan he was attracting attention from around Europe and particularly Real Madrid. However when Alex Ferguson came knocking he opted for Old Trafford and he has since cemented his place in Man U’s starting 11.
In his 3 years in Manchester he has won the Premier League and League Cup and last year he was voted as Manchester United Players’ Player of the Year then rewarded with £80,000 four-year contract.
Ferguson obviously values his player citing, “Antonio is always very professional and a great human being. I’m very happy with him”
Similarly Ashley Young is glowing in his praise despite his competition for a place recently claiming
“’He attacks, he defends, he can shoot, he can cross, he can pass… he has it all and that’s why he scooped up everything at the end-of-season awards. It’s why the players voted for him and it’s why the fans voted for him”.
When it was announced that Valencia was to play as the No.7 for Man U, Ecuadorians immediately thought this was a further identification of the his greatness and an assimilation along with previous number sevens alike George Best and Eric Cantona. A typically humble Valencia accepted the honour with his usual grace.
Valencia has represented Ecuador a total of 54 times, scoring six goals. He played in all 4 of Ecuador’s games at the 2006 World Cup and garnered universal praise for his performances. Appearances in the Copa America and unsuccessful qualification campaigns followed but his performances have be rewarded with the captain’s armband.
When Valencia receives the ball in the Atahaulpa stadium there is a collective hushed mumble of “Antonio” in anticipation of some oncoming breath-taking skill. Unfortunately, rarely is there any Messi-esque magic but he often has a telling contribution for “El Tri”. Sometimes Ecuador’s over-reliance on Valencia has a detrimental effect on their pace based play and it becomes too obvious to the opposition.
In recent World Cup qualifiers the opposition have been wary of the Valencia effect and doubled up on him somewhat stymying his contribution. Luckily Ecuador has quality all over the park and Valencia can be used as a foil and play quickly switched to the left hand side through the likes of Saritama and Montero.
Valencia is fast and incisive but he is no playmaker. His lung-bursting runs and rapid counter attacks can severely test the best of wing backs. He can chip in with the odd goal but is hardly prolific with an average of around one goal every 8 matches for club and country.
Valencia’s real strength is his overall ability. While some players are more gifted in specific skills i.e. tackling, free-kicks, close control, not many are proficient in all.
He is arguably the best right sided player in the EPL and while he is not as skilled as Barcelona’s Daniel Alves at right back his versatility makes him invaluable for club and country. There are few modern players who can flourish in a number of positions and for this reason Valencia is very special.
Off the field Valencia is also growing and becoming a lot more vocal in the media. Early in his career he was a very reserved and shy however recent months he has become more confident and controversial.
After last month’s qualifier against Uruguay when he was harshly red-carded in the dying minutes was scathing and incandescent with rage:
“This referee is a clown,” he said. “How come he didn’t give us that penalty? We are in Uruguay, we are not on another planet.
“He did the same in the last World Cup qualification campaign. He’s a disgrace, a total clown”.
A day later he was even more enraged when he had his camera stolen by the customs officials in Quito airport. This time his countrymen felt both barrels in a tirade in the media.
At 27 Antonio Valencia is entering his prime years as a footballer. By all accounts he lives a proper lifestyle and with Manchester United and Ecuador he should be competing at the very highest level for many more years.
If he can continue his career progression the maybe he will become, as many Ecuadorians already believe, one of the greatest footballers in the world.
The draw for the champions league draw has just been made with Group D looking like the “Group of Death”.
After an underwhelming maiden tournament last year Roberto Mancini will be hoping to qualify for the next stage. However with Real Madrid, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund (all champions of their respective countries) in their group it will be a hard task to complete.
Celtic could of got it easier with Barcelona and Benfica but they can hold realistic ambitions of a 3rd place and Europa league spot along with Spartak Moscow. Their away form seems to be improving and they are a match for any at Celtic Park.
Holders Chelsea got Juventus,Shakhtar Donetsk and newcomers FC Nordsjaelland.
Arsenal face trips to Schalke, Olympiakos, Montpellier and Man Utd will play Braga, Galatasaray, CFR Cluj in Group H.
Group A: Porto, Dynamo Kiev, Paris St Germain, Dinamo Zagreb.
Group B: Arsenal, Schalke, Olympiakos, Montpellier.
Group C: AC Milan, Zenit St Petersburg, Anderlecht, Malaga.
Group D: Real Madrid, Manchester City, Ajax, Borussia Dortmund.
Group E: Chelsea, Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus, FC Nordsjaelland.
Group F: Bayern Munich, Valencia, Lille, BATE Borisov.
Group G: Barcelona, Benfica, Spartak Moscow, Celtic.
Group H: Manchester United, Braga, Galatasaray, CFR Cluj.
After their 5-1 humbling against the USA post-season the last thing the Scotland players needed was another confidence sapping, friendly defeat. Fortunately, Craig Levien’s men rallied to the cause and beat an Australian team placed far higher in the FIFA rankings.
Despite going behind to a fine Bresciano strike and losing Alan McGregor to a freak injury early on Scotland battled back to record an impressive 3 – 1 home win and set themselves up nicely for the coming World Cup qualifiers. Jordan Rhodes and Ross McCormack grabbed fine goals either side of a Davidson own goal to secure a rare friendly home win at Easter Road, Edinburgh.
The performance of Jordan Rhodes was particularly pleasing considering it was only his first start in the dark blue. He expertly headed a Danny Fox cross past the Ozzie keeper to open his international tally and hastled the defence throughout his game. With Kenny Miller in the twilight of his career and playing in the MLS, Rhodes may be used as Scotland’s main striker, although Jamie Mackie and Craig Mackail Smith may have something to say about that.
Ross McCormack did well to weave into the Australian box then dispatch his goal and there were impressive displays for Danny Fox, Charlie Adam and Alan Hutton.
That being said there were some worrying defensive lapses by Scotland against the off-colour Socceroo’s and these mistakes will be more ruthlessly punished in the qualifiers.
After last year’s claims of a Scottish mafia ruling the management class of the English Premier League this year looks less impressive. This has been mainly due to the sacking of Kenny Dalglish (Liverpool) and Alex McLeish (Aston Villa) along with the demotion of Steve Kean (Blackburn) and Owen Coyle (Bolton), and while Steve Clarke has picked a new job at West Brom and Paul Lambert has moved to Aston Villa it leaves Scotland with only 4 EPL manager/coach representatives;
Aston Villa – Paul Lambert
Everton – David Moyes
Man United – Alex Ferguson
West Brom – Steve Clark
In regards to players it looks a little healthier than years before although most of the Scots play for teams that shall probably be fighting against relegation in 2012/13. With the transfer window still wide open many some players may move into the EPL while others could drop down to the championship etc.
Disappointingly, there are no Scots in the top 6 first teams apart from Darren Fletcher who is currently side-lined with a chronic, long-term illness. It is looking likely that Charlie Adam will move away from Anfield and similarly it remains to be seen If Danny Wilson can remain at Liverpool.
Steven Naismith chose to release himself from the new-co Rangers and secured a contract with Everton while Steven Whittaker did the same with Norwich. As Internationals and with Champions League experience behind them both should cope with the higher level in the EPL.
Robert Snodgrass (Leeds to Norwich) and Frazer Fyvie (Aberdeen to Wigan) have transferred up a level while Danny Fox and Alex Pearce benefit from promotion.
Alan Hutton, Barry Bannan (Aston Villa)
Charlie Adam, Danny Wilson (Liverpool)
Darren Fletcher (Man United)
Danny Fox (Southampton)
Alex Pearce (Reading)
Russell Martin, Steven Whittaker, Robert Snodgrass, Simon Lapin (Norwich City)
Gary Caldwell, Shaun Maloney, James McArthur, Frazer Fyvie (Wigan Athletic)
Graham Dorrans, Scott Allan, James Morrison (West Brom)
Phillip Bardsley (Sunderland)
Jamie Mackie (QPR)
Steven Naismith (Everton)
Christophe Berra and Steven Fletcher are looking to move on from demoted Wolves and should find an EPL club in the coming weeks however Craig Gordon and James McFadden are free agents and it remains to be seen if they can find a club at EPL level.
Jordan Rhodes has been attracting interest from various EPL clubs after his recent high scoring but he may choose to stay at Huddersfield for another year.
Many may argue whether the EPL is better than La Liga or Bundesliga but it is streets ahead of the SPL and the Championship from where most of the Scottish national team has previously been chosen.
Although we have no superstars akin to Greame Souness, Kenny Dalglish or Gordon Strachan anymore (or even any John Collins, Ally McCoists, Craig Burleys or Paul Lamberts) any greater EPL influence should benefit the national team.
Like many Scottish fans I still have my doubts about coach/manager Craig Levein. His handling of the recent Ian Black/Lee Wallace controversy has not been handled well and his relationship with tabloid media is beginning to sour.
The Levein/Houston partnership has not borne much success so far and with such a hard qualifying group (Group A: Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, SCOTLAND, Macedonia, Wales) I fear that this pair are not up to the task.
I hope I am proved wrong and pleasantly surprised.