Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 2 August 2014

Wayne Rooney’s back but it’s Valencia who catches eye

It was the sight of Wayne Rooney that took the eye just before the half hour, 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'll risk the kind of abuse, like the “you fat b******” 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, though he wasn't the only one punching the air at that moment, as United took the lead.

Antonio Valencia, who had just scored from Rooney's cross, isn't the kind of player to invite much attention. 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 might be on the cusp of graduating from a good Manchester United player into a great one.

The choreography on the 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 has also worked with him on the shooting and it’s the improved finishing is the part of Valencia which United have made. The one 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 (pictured) 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.

When Valencia ran on to John O'Shea's ball and levelled the cross which Javier Hernandez converted, he drifted out of camera shot again and it was certainly hard to resist the sight of the Mexican, hand over mouth with embarrassment at having scored in such 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 Ecuadorean name on the team sheet. And since this was the product of Valencia's first full 90 minutes of football for four months, after missing his club's United States tour with the ankle injury which his last season end prematurely, he might not be invisible for much longer.

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