The first game of this year’s UEFA Champions League group stage on 14 September could unequivocally be classed as a bad day at the office for Manchester United. Held to a frustrating 0-0 draw by Scottish champions Rangers, a far heavier blow was the serious injury suffered by Antonio Valencia, with subsequent media reports stating the winger's broken ankle would sideline him for the rest of the season.
However, both player and club have turned things around in spectacular style since. The Red Devils are clear at the top of the Premier League standings and hold a 1-0 first-leg lead from their Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea, while the Ecuadorian has returned to form and fitness much earlier than first expected.
“I feel really good," Valencia told FIFA.com. "I’ve been getting in the team for the last few games and I’m pleased about that. I can now say I’m back to 100 per cent. The six months I spent on the sidelines were quite tough, especially to start with. When you start to see progress it encourages you and all you think about is getting back playing again.”
His return could scarcely have come at a better time, with United still in the hunt for three major honours in what remains of the campaign. For starters, they are seven points clear of Arsenal at the top of the Premier League, though they have played a game more than the Gunners. “It’s still difficult because we’ve got six tricky games left – they are six finals," Valencia warned. "I just hope that we can keep performing at 100 per cent so that the fans have a title to celebrate."
In continental competition, meanwhile, last Wednesday’s first-leg win at Chelsea means Sir Alex Ferguson’s charges are a step closer to reaching the last four of the Champions League. “We’re very close but it’s not over yet,” continued the former Wigan Athletic man.
“Chelsea have very good players and they’re always tough opponents. All the teams [still in the competition] are good and anything can happen. But I’m hoping the final turns out to be United against Real Madrid.”
When quizzed on adjusting to life at a Premier League giant, Valencia responded: “It was hard to adapt during my first year here, but I got through it thanks to my team-mates and the manager,” before turning his attention to the swift adaptation of his Mexican colleague Javier Hernandez: “He’s doing really well and it’s taken him no time at all to settle in. It’s made a big difference to United that he feels so at home and is scoring so many goals.”
Valencia also made a point of highlighting the example set by veteran winger Ryan Giggs. “I work hard every day to grow and improve as a player," he said. "I really like the way Giggs goes about his business, I’ve got a lot of admiration for him. He’s a great pro, a great team-mate, and in my view he’ll be able to carry on playing for a long time yet.”
Though still seemingly some way off, given the frenetic finish to the club season ahead, Valencia will have one eye on his next major tournament in Ecuador colours: the Copa America: “It’ll be an important test with a view to Brazil 2014 qualifying.
"We’re starting a new era under coach Reinaldo Rueda, who is introducing a new playing system, which we’re getting used to. In Argentina the favourites will be the usual suspects: the host nation and Brazil. But let’s hope Ecuador can be challengers too. It’d be nice if a different national side could lift the trophy.”
However, La Tricolor face a daunting task from the off on Argentinian soil, having been drawn alongside two teams that featured at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. “All the groups are always difficult in South America," Valencia explained.
"But it seems like this time Ecuador have been handed the trickiest [group], which features Paraguay and Brazil. We won’t be taking Venezuela lightly either, as they’ve been making a lot of progress. It’s a tough section but we’ve been working well recently and we’ve still got two months ahead in which to prepare.”
Mention of La Albirroja and A Seleção, who both made the last eight at South Africa 2010, causes Valencia to wonder what might have been. “It’s a bit annoying not to have qualified when you’ve been there before," he said. "It’s also hard watching the other teams that qualified ahead of you, but that’s football. That was an extra motivation in my career, to help keep me working hard and chasing more success. But I don’t pay it too much heed anymore, because I’m more focused on what’s ahead of me.”
So, does Valencia feel he has now made the journey from promising youngster to established national-team star? “No, I’m not a star," he stated. "But I am seen as an example to follow because I’m at a big club. I just work for the good of the group, to help the national side keep moving forward.
“I really hope we qualify for Brazil . My dream is to win a lot of titles with United, win a Copa America with Ecuador and make a splash at a World Cup to give my country plenty to cheer about.”