Antonio Valencia is currently Manchester United's most experienced player in the UEFA Champions League, having racked up over 40 appearances in the prestigious and historic competition.
With the European campaign high on the agenda this month, with Juventus visiting Old Trafford this evening, Inside United magazine took the chance to speak to the skipper about his memories and moments in the Champions League, going all the way back to 2009 and his continental debut…
THE BEGINNING OF MY EUROPEAN ADVENTURE
Take us back to your first Champions League game, a win against Besiktas in September 2009…
My first game in Turkey was incredible. We won 1-0 and I was happy to have played in a Champions League game. It had been my dream and I managed to realise it playing for a team that I really love, Manchester United. Then that was the start of a really good period for us where we reached the final too, in the 2011 tournament. We lost that but it was a fantastic experience, my family were very happy and very proud of me and so now let’s hope that this season’s Champions League can be one of the best ever for us. We’re strong and we’ve started well, and I’m sure we’ll have a good tournament.
Did it feel different to a domestic game?
Yes, it was a very different game, I had a different set of emotions playing in the Champions League. You hear the music, the crowd, and what’s more there was a huge amount of noise in that stadium with a very lively crowd. It was a wonderful experience, I was very nervous but I can remember seeing the phenomenal players that I had all around me who took it upon themselves to settle me down by saying, ‘We’re right with you, everything’s going to be fine, we’ll be giving you plenty of the ball so you feel good.’ And that’s what happened, I felt comfortable and I played the full 90 minutes and it was a great experience.
Was it always an ambition to play at that level and was the fact you would have Champions League football among the reasons you joined United?
Well I knew that if I signed for United I’d be playing in the Champions League. I said to myself that it would be another dream realised and that my country would see me play, and that’s something that would make me feel very proud. When you play in this class of match, it gives a certain prestige, it gives you greater character, it gives you a real desire to want more of these kinds of games and occasions.
That same season, you scored your first Champions League goal, away in Moscow against CSKA. It was the winner – do you remember it?
I was going into the game full of confidence as the gaffer, Alex Ferguson, was giving me plenty of opportunities to play. I was featuring more and more and playing the whole 90 minutes too. So I was feeling good in myself and also the previous weekend I’d just scored my first goal for the club, from a pull-back by Gary Neville [against Bolton Wanderers]. Then four days later I was picked again to play in the Champions League in Russia. It was absolutely freezing there and it was an artificial pitch, which was really hard. But we still had to try to win the game. Every time we go out on the pitch our mindset is to win, no matter what kind of surface it might be. I remember Berbatov headed it on and as it fell to me I didn’t hesitate to have a shot at goal. It was a decent game as we were pretty much in control of things throughout.
We reached the quarter-finals that season, before losing to Bayern Munich on away goals despite a flying start in the second leg at Old Trafford…
Well the first leg had been a really strange game, as we were leading 1-0 at the outset. Then in the second half they put two goals past us. It was one of those games where you play well but you pay the price for conceding and you end up losing. So then in the return leg we were really motivated. We were determined to win. We were anxious to get through to the next round as the team was in such good form. We scored twice in the first ten minutes. I had the chance to provide two assists and it was an incredible game. The best 30 minutes of football that I have ever experienced at United were in that first half. We were all over them, they couldn’t get themselves or their game together and we really put them under pressure and we battled all we could, and I felt great, and the team felt great too. But then unfortunately Rafael was sent off so we were a man down. We knew that they also had some top-class players and then they scored a goal just at the end of the first half. Then Arjen Robben scored near the end of the second half. It hurt a lot because the team had been playing well and we were very sad to have been knocked out. But when you leave everything out on the field and you feel proud of your own performance and you’ve fought hard for your team-mates, you can go home calmly and you can sleep soundly. I think that night was one of the ones where you go home and you say to your family, I battled and I ran hard for my team-mates. And that’s all. I am sad that we could not have got through to the next round.
Did that European experience help you understand about the level at United, and give you confidence to believe you belonged at that level?
When I first arrived at United, three or four different people sat down with me and explained to me all about the club and what it represented. They told me it was a massive club, which of course I knew already, that it was a team that always fights, a team that wants to win every single game; you might get beaten on the Saturday but then on the Sunday you have to be back in training with the right attitude. I said to myself, ‘That’s exactly what I want! I want to work hard for this team, I see highly committed people here, real fighters.'
Your serious injury sustained at Old Trafford meant you missed the group stages but you managed to come back around the time of the quarter-finals, where we played Chelsea. What was it like playing an English side in a European tournament, was it a bit different or just the same?
It was just the same because the demands on you are the same. I think it was a special tie because we won the first leg at home, and we managed to win away too. We were really happy because we were playing really well, almost from memory, we had a great understanding between ourselves and we were enjoying our football too. But there was always that tension and a few nerves there as well. They were two incredible games, really special.
Then the semi-final with Schalke finished 6-1 on aggregate – it’s not usually that comfortable reaching a final. What do remember about it? You scored the first goal at home against the Germans…
We won the game at Old Trafford comfortably. I scored a goal and the team played at a really high tempo and I think we settled the game in around ten minutes. And that was us in the final, right then. Which was absolutely amazing, with all my family there and all the United fans. A fantastic experience that will remain in my heart forever.
When you scored the first goal you pointed to your tattoo on your arm. What did this mean?
I’d told my daughter that when I scored a goal I was going to dedicate it to her because she was always there in the most difficult moments of my injury. I told her, ‘When I’m back on the field playing again, and I score a goal, I’m going to dedicate it to you.’ And so I scored and I dedicated it to her with lots of love.
MY EXPERIENCE OF THE 2011 FINAL
The final itself, then, against Barcelona at Wembley Stadium – tell us about what you remember of the build-up to that occasion…
We were staying in London the night before the game, we were pretty relaxed and we were chatting about the final and the fact that they were in some really good form. For me, this was the best Barcelona team there had ever been. We were all very calm about things, because we knew that we were also in a great run of form ourselves. We’d just won the Premier League title, and the boys were playing well. It was one of those games that you could run around and fight for everything but when you were up against someone like Lionel Messi, you never knew what could happen. They started well and scored the first goal and then we equalised and went in at half time 1-1. The manager gave his team talk and everyone went out for the second half really motivated to fight hard and win. But you know, like I said, when you have a player like Messi on the other team you just never know! He scored himself and then provided an assist. It was a real shame not to have won that Champions League title, but I was proud and happy with the work we had done in that tournament.
Before the game, what was the team-talk like – were there any specific instructions for handling Barça’s great players, especially Messi?
The boss gave a really inspirational team talk, it was a great speech. As a result, everyone left the dressing room feeling really motivated. As for our tactics, they were the same as always, play like we had been playing recently. Fight hard and run hard, and not stop running, keep running and covering your team-mates. I can’t give you any more detail than that because those are the things that remain in the dressing room and are kept to yourself. I was playing wide midfield up against Eric Abidal. The boss just told me to stay very compact and to help out Fabio in defence, who was playing on the right as well, and also that when I got forward I should try to link up with Rooney up front. I tried to do my best, but from my point of view I feel very proud of what we did in that game.
What was the feeling at half time, coming in at 1-1 after Rooney’s equaliser?
It was a lovely goal from Rooney. There was a nice exchange of passes in the final third and Rooney fired home beautifully. When we scored the thought came into my head and I said to myself, ‘We can win this!’ We can win because you could see just before Rooney’s goal we had just come close twice with efforts on goal and it was very good. I thought we had a good chance of winning that game. But, they were on a great run of form and they were a team who would remain very calm and show a lot of patience. As it went on they showed all the patience necessary for them to score a second goal.
Was that the biggest game you've played in your career here?
In my United career I would love this to have been one of the best but I have a more special one. It was when we played Boca Juniors in my first ever game, in Germany [a pre-season friendly in July 2009 – Valencia scored in a 2-1 win]. I played in that game and I wanted to surprise the manager, and I realise it wasn’t an easy thing to do, but I tried to surprise him so he could see that I had what it takes and that I wanted to play in this team.
LOOKING AHEAD... TO JUVENTUS AT HOME
“We know that they have some players of great quality. They’ve got Cristiano Ronaldo, of course, then there’s Douglas Costa, Juan Cuadrado also – lots ofplayers. They have a lot of quality there and we know they are going to be two tricky games for us. But we need to fight hard and to play our football, we have to go out there with character and attitude and play for our supporters and our families, and let’s hope that we can perform well.
“Everyone knows Cristiano is an incredible player. A player who is now 33, he just keeps on scoring and fighting hard. I hope he gets a great reception, one of the best at Old Trafford, his home. He has always said he loves this team, which is really nice. But after that let’s hope that he isn’t on top form and that those of us who have to mark him are able to stop him playing and that it’s our team that plays well.
“I’m sure it’s one of those Champions League seasons where you never know who will win it. We’ve already seen some surprise results. You never can tell. I just hope we get that little bit of luck you need and that we can keep winning.”
This exclusive interview with Antonio Valencia first appeared in the latest edition of Inside United magazine, which is available to purchase now online, in the shops and at Old Trafford on Tuesday night.