Football can be a cruel game at times, it’s surely not for the faint hearted, as the pictures from Old Trafford were deemed too horrible to be even telecast on the live television when Luis Antonio Valencia suffered a damaging blow to his lower left leg and a dislocation of the ankle. The Devils fear that the effects would be felt right through the grueling league campaign. An epitome of consistency and hard work, Tony, as he is affectionately called by United faithful, would be missed for reasons more than one.
Witnessing the sight of him in agony, when he was being stretchered off from the Old Trafford arena with an attached oxygen cylinder, Sir Alex Ferguson would have known immediately that the reliable winger may not be able to step in the football pitch for the remainder of the season. Although a successful surgery carried out by a team of doctors have ascertained that Valencia might be able to make a comeback for the later part of the campaign, contrary to the initial reports of him being out for the entire season. The official statement released by the club spokesperson confirmed that even though the operation went well and Antonio is perfectly fine, very positive and very determined, he is likely to be out of action for better part of the remaining eight months.
Being almost inactive in the transfer market for an established wide player, Ferguson‘s viable response to the loss of Valencia will be pretty limited. With Valencia on the right and Nani on the left wing, Sir Alex seemed to have build up a trustworthy pair of wingers reminiscent of the treble winning golden days of Beckham-Giggs combo. Now Valencia’s injury leaves United in an awful strait with only three experienced wingers in the armor – Ryan Giggs, Nani and Ji-Sung Park. While the three of them are capable of taking the additional responsibility on their shoulders; any fatigue, injury or suspension to one of them will leave United gasping for breath. This implies that someone other than these three will be needed to step up to play out of position wide on the wings and Sir Alex must have already started searching for appropriate alternatives.
If we first take a look at the alternatives within the team, an obvious solution lies in Nani on the right wing. Even though the Portuguese would not have liked it to happen in this manner, but Tony‘s injury has presented Nani with the chance to stake his claim and stamp his authority on the right wing position. In all possibility, Nani will be moved to his preferred position on the right side of the pitch, while Ji-Sung Park will be operating on the left. Giggs will be the automatic substitute choice in that scenario. In the case of unavailability of one among Park or Nani – Giggs can be trusted to fill in the slot effortlessly. But being on the wrong side of age, it will be irrational to expect Giggs to be able to play week-in and week-out on the wings. As long as an answer to this woe is not be found, the Red Devils all over the world will certainly going to have sleep-less nights.
Darren Fletcher is another option though. Fletcher has the experience of playing wide on the right for United when he was fighting to break into the first team action. In-fact it was his work-horse performance on the right side of the pitch that made Red Devils to take a notice and subsequently has brought him today’s recognition. However, his amazing chemistry with Paul Scholes at the center of the midfield makes the choice tough for Sir Alex. Also, the point to ponder over here is that during those days Fletcher featured in a classic 4-3-3 formation, without conventional wingers, in the presence of Carlos Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney upfront. Now the scenario is totally different. The Gaffer will never deploy a 4-3-3 strategy without someone having the skill of Ronaldo and the work ethics of Tevez. Moreover the fitness concerns for Anderson and the unavailability of Michael Carrick will be enough for Sir Alex to nip in the bud of any thoughts on these lines.
Well, Rooney has also played wide in the same 4-3-3 formation, but a repeat of that is unlikely as our third choice striker Chicharito is quite inexperienced and the lazy but elegant Berbatov can only be accommodated in a 4-4-2 formation. So this probability can also be ruled out.
It is highly unlikely that Fergie will take a leaf out of Gareth Bale’s brilliant adaptation from a full back to a left winger at Tottenham and try out either of the twin brothers, Rafael or Fabio, in the wings. Rafael has been impressive while going forward in the limited opportunity of playing as a right back and he is good in delivering those inch perfect crosses. But being the first choice right back, it is improbable that he will be used in an advanced position. Fabio, on the other hand, is lively, fast, tricky and more importantly not the first choice full back; but his crossing and big game temperament is still a suspect.
Another option for Sir Alex is to find a suitable talent from the United Reserves team. There are three players in the reserves, who have the capability and skill required to make it to the substitutes’ bench at- the-least. Gabriel Obertan has been with the first team for two seasons now and he was very impressive during the pre-season tour. He is pacy and good at dribbling, but his physical stature is fragile and he is injury prone in nature. If Obertan intends to make it big at Old Trafford, the first and foremost thing he needs to do is to improve upon his endurance level to counter the physical aspect of English football.
Magnus Eikrem, an United Academy product, is another bright prospect waiting to grab this opportunity. Although he is not a conventional winger, and currently plays in central midfield – either as a deep lying playmaker or up on the hole behind the striker; he has also been deployed out wide during his initial days because of his excellent crossing abilities. His dead ball prowess could also be an added advantage for Manchester United. But, he too is in Obertan mould as far as the physical nature of the game is concerned – delicate and injury prone.
Last but not the least, there is the mysterious Tiago Manuel Dias Correia aka Bebe. The 20 year old unknown quantity, who has created mass hysteria among British print and electronic media. Though the amount of quality, Sir Alex’s latest recruit of reportedly $7.4 Million valuation possesses, is yet to be ascertained; but his performance in a couple of Under-21 matches for Portugal have highlighted the fact that this unpolished gem is a rare blend of pace, power and skill. He has been included in United’s Champions League squad – however, the Gaffer thinks that Bebe is in an important stage of his development and it would take some time for him before he can properly gel with the team.
Is he ready for the big stage?
If Valencia’s recovery seem to take longer than the anticipated duration, Sir Alex might be tempted to go for a new recruit in the January transfer window – may be a six month’s loan deal or it could well be a permanent transfer. But that will happen only if the right player is available at the right price. Do not expect United to shell out insane amount of money and run behind some superstar’s signature on the dotted line. Tom Cleverly could have been handy in these circumstances, but whether there is any recall clause in his loan deal with Wigan Athletic remains undisclosed. As they say – hindsight is an excellent thing to have.
Whatever solution works out for United, the loss of Valencia‘s contribution will be deeply felt. Valencia’s willingness to track back deep into his own half to regain the lost possession is another asset that has been applauded by his manager. His absence has the potential to cause profound effect on Manchester United title ambitions, yet the Devils will consider themselves fortunate to have a versatile squad at their manager’s disposal having players with the ability to cover up for this regretful incident and hope for no more injury concern for any of its players until Valencia returns to match fitness.
From the entire TheHardTackle team, here’s wishing Tony a speedy recovery.