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Transfer Rater: Talisca to Manchester United

Football Whispers

Conte's last stand, trophy-hunter Mourinho on prowl

FA Cup
 By Andy Mitten

Valencia has made himself into a key man for Mourinho's Man United

Though Manchester United struggled to convert their chances against Rostov in Thursday's Europa League round-of-16 second leg, Jose Mourinho's side still managed to create plenty. Match-winner Juan Mata and Antonio Valencia were the key protagonists, with neither player showing any evidence of the fatigue that concerns Mourinho.

Playing in a more advanced role on the right in a 3-4-3 formation, Valencia went past Rostov's Khoren Bayramyan on several occasions in the first half, right in front of the eyes of both managers and the tiny pocket of fewer than 100 travelling fans. The opening period was not over when the Russians' No. 19 was put out of his misery and switched infield.

Valencia, though, remained effective in driving forward, going past opponents and crossing accurately for United's attackers in the hope that they would kill the hopes of their obstinate opponents, who, until Mata's 70th-minute goal, were still level on aggregate.

Valencia has been one of United's best players this season. When Mourinho arrived, there was more concern about who would play at right-back than on the left and yet, since preseason the club's third longest-serving player has been integral, starting with a man of the match performance in a 5-2 win vs. Galatasaray in Gothenburg.

"I feel that el mister [the manager] really believes in me," Valencia told ESPN FC after the win against Rostov, which sent United into the last eight draw which saw them paired by Belgian club Anderlecht.

"I've played in many games and I have been free of serious injuries. I spoke with mister soon after he arrived. He told me that when he was at Real Madrid he wanted to sign me but United had said no. That conversation gave me a lot of confidence and I have been happy to play right-back rather than further forward, where I've played for most of my career. I feel very comfortable, but in a team like United you have to attack anyway from right-back. When you play in this position you have an opportunity to find space and make the best of that space."

Valencia is one of five players to have started 30 or more games this season and has already played more than twice as many minutes this season as he did in 2015-16. His current total of 2,852 matches the figure he reached two campaigns ago and the 31-year-old is on target to play more than in any of his previous seven seasons at Old Trafford; 3,488, in 2009-10, is his personal best.

Antonio Valencia, right, has been a key player for Jose Mourinho, right, at Manchester United this season.

Mourinho likes Valencia to play for 90 minutes and also sanctioned a new contract in January that should keep him at the club until June 2018. In addition to his manager, Valencia has an admirer in his teammate Marcos Rojo, who has marked him when playing for Argentina against Ecuador.

"Antonio has been one of our best players this season," Rojo told ESPN FC on Thursday. "He's very strong, he's fast and he crosses well. He also has attacking intentions which you need at a big club like this one. He's popular in the dressing room, always joking around, but he's respected too."

Valencia has abundant pace and power and it was those assets that caused Sir Alex Ferguson to sign him in 2009. Bought as a winger, he dovetailed neatly with right-back Gary Neville, who summed up the various men to play ahead of him thus.

"[David] Beckham was a 50/50 partnership where I defended for him and attacked for him and he defended for me and attacked for me," Neville told me. "[Cristiano] Ronaldo was 'I attack, you defend!' Even though I would go forward, I knew I had to be more responsible because I knew he wasn't going to defend. On the other hand, I didn't need to attack for him because he was that good.

"With [Andrei] Kanchelskis, continues Neville, "I had more a supporting role because he was a flying winger; 25 percent of me attacking and 75 percent of me defending and vice versa. Valencia? My legs had gone. I needed him to defend and attack for me and I sat there hoping that he'd do that and cover me. He was 90 percent and I was 10 percent."

Valencia's 281 appearances put him only 11 behind Ronaldo on the club's all-time list. He could pass his predecessor on United's right before the end of the current campaign and, unlike Ronaldo, Valencia would like to stay "for as long as possible" and has no inclination to leave for warmer climes.

"I'm used to the cold here now," he said. "My family are too. They speak English no problem. Me? I speak a little better each day."

After more than a decade in England, Valencia really should be doing interviews in English and as we chatted in Spanish, his former teammates Michael Owen and Owen Hargreaves, covering the game for British television, walked past and shouted: "Speak in English!" Valencia smiled.

He'll be judged by what he does on the pitch, rather than his language skills. He's doing just fine and, having impressed there last July, hopes to be back in Sweden for the Europa League final in May.

"The attitude of the team is very good," he said. "And the Europa League is an important cup to win; it would also get us back into the Champions League. A club like United really should be in that competition."

It's not going to be easy to make the Premier League's top four and Mourinho remains livid about the scheduling of matches and the intensity of United's fixtures. He feels that he's fighting fires on many fronts and was unimpressed at his team having to go back to Manchester by coach after the FA Cup defeat at Chelsea on Monday, rather than plane as anticipated.

And so the Europa League might be United's best chance of a Champions League place. The team have done well in the competition this season, especially at home where they have won all five games, scoring 13 and conceding only one. With players like Valencia on song, United remain tournament favourites.

Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.


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