Ecuador winger has finally recovered his top form for the champions after suffering a broken ankle three years ago
The Antonio Valencia who starred for Manchester United in Tuesday's Champions League victory over Bayer Leverkusen was one returning to the flying form cruelly interrupted by an ankle break three years ago.
A packed Old Trafford under continental lights was an apt stage for a Manchester United favourite to turn in a sparkling man-of-the-match performance, one that announced he was back. All night Valencia tormented Leverkusen down their left side with a rediscovered yard of pace, crowning a redemptive occasion with the final goal in a 4-2 win over the German club.
Last season Valencia, who cost £16m from Wigan Athletic in June 2009, wore for the first time the famous No7 shirt of Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham, Eric Cantona and George Best. David Moyes confirmed Valencia had felt the weight of following such club greats and that a returnto the No25 shirt has been liberating. "He's done very well," the United manager said. "They kept telling me we need to change his number and we got that changed for him. Sometimes psychologically it can make a difference for a player. Overall I have been pleased. He's scored a great goal [against Leverkusen]."
As United make the short trip across town for Sunday's 166th derby, Valencia is illustrating why he has been one of the go-to men for Moyes as he starts his reign. Selected in four of United's opening five matches, it would be a major surprise if the winger does not begin against Manuel Pellegrini's team.
The way the 28-year-old smacked home his goal against Leverkusen suggested a catharsis that wiped away memories of three difficult years. These followed a challenge involving Kirk Broadfoot during a 0-0 draw in a Champions League group match against Rangers at Old Traffordin September 2010. Valencia suffered a double fracture of the tibula and fibula in his left ankle. Broadfoot later spoke of his horror at seeing the bone sticking out.
Despite Sir Alex Ferguson stating that Valencia would miss the rest of the season, he returned the following March and managed 14 more appearances, the last of which was a starting berth in the 3-1 Champions League final defeat to Barcelona at Wembley in May.
In the following campaign there were 42 appearances for United and Ecuador, with 40 more for the club last season. Yet the sense among fans was of a Valencia whose direct approach had become tentative, with the zip that used to propel him beyond defenders dulled.
The statistics bear this out. In Valencia's one full season before the injury, he managed five Premier League goals. After the break there have been five in two and a-half seasons. The pre-September 2010 Valencia created a chance for a team-mate every 30 minutes, while the average following the broken ankle went down to once every 40 minutes, effectively only one each half.
Of the goal threat Valencia could now offer, Moyes said: "I said to him today [Friday] you should be able to be getting yourself seven or eight goals a season regularly. He looked at me and sort of squinted a little. Hopefully he knows what I mean. I don't know how many he scored last season but I think it was only one or two. He's got off to a good start and hopefully getting close to the target for this season."
Pellegrini managed Valencia for three years when at Villarreal, from 2005 to 2008, during which he made two La Liga appearances in-between loan spells and before the move to Wigan.
Asked about the threat Wayne Rooney will pose on Sunday, the Chilean said: "He [Rooney] is a great player but we must be not only attending with Rooney but with all the players, [Robin] Van Persie, Valencia, all the big players they have. We bought Valencia for Villarreal, he was with us for a few months then he went on loan to clubs in Spain and then he came to Wigan and then Manchester United."
Against a stand-in City left-back in Aleksandar Kolarov, whose defending was again suspect in Tuesday's 3-0 defeat of Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League, Valencia will fancy his chance of causing menace for his side.
As Pellegrini said: "He is a very good player, an important wing player. He has a lot of things. He has pace, normally he plays very well with his head up which is important."