The superlative "best" is an honour rarely bestowed. To be "the best" at your craft, to prevail over all contemporaries, takes a lifetime of work to hone a God-given gift.
In sport, the title of best usually goes hand in hand with a certain brash, hedonistic, obnoxious mindset obvious in the purveyors of the craft, from boxing’s Floyd Mayweather to football's Cristiano Ronaldo (or more pertinently, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but he isn’t quite as good).
Antonio Valencia subverts the gene.
Humble and self-depreciating, the Ecuadorian arrived at Old Trafford in a low-key transfer from Wigan. Critics debated the ambition shown in the transfer, as although Valencia’s talent was obvious, Wigan was not known as a highway of marquee talent.
At the Theatre of Dreams, Valencia has flourished, asserting himself as a key man in the Red Devils' attacking unit. Despite suffering a severe broken leg around two years ago, Valencia has recovered to become an indispensable member of sir Alex Ferguson’s side.
Now, I am going to go out on a limb here. I understand this opinion could be contentious, and I am only airing it in search of clarification from this knowledgeable community. To me—Messi and Ronaldo, who are not wingers in the strictest sense, aside—Antonio Valencia is the best winger in the world at the moment.
Let me justify this by analysing the obvious contenders.
Dutchman Arjen Robben, to me, is the most onerous challenger to Valencia’s supremacy. Plying his trade for German powerhouse Bayern Munich, Robben is a winger in the purest sense of the word.
Flying up the wing in his inimitable running style, Robben ghosts past his markers as if they are not there. Equally comfortable cutting in to unleash a stinging drive as he is delivering a telling ball, Arjen Robben is the bane of defenders the world over.
Robben has a flaw, however. He is almost painfully greedy, a trait that was paraded in the shop window during Holland’s recent Euro 2012 debacle. Too often, when a much easier option presents itself, Robben takes the hard route, trusting himself and his own skill rather than a teammate with a far greater chance of ball consolidation.
Antonio Valencia, like Robben, has a blistering turn of pace, excellent shooting range—although admittedly not as good as the Dutchman’s—and a killer delivery.
Where the Ecuadorian differs, however, is that he is a consummate team player. Sometimes deployed as a makeshift right-back due to his defensive discipline (something Robben is patently lacking), Valencia is the perfect combination of attacking flair combined with gritty defensive nous.
The next contender to present himself is Tottenham’s flying Welsh winger Gareth Bale.
Again, Bale is undoubtedly a viable contender, with one of the most frightening speed bursts in world football. Bale’s game is essentially built on this turn of pace, which he uses to fly past the Premiership's lethargic defences on an all-too-frequent basis.
Broken down to its core, though, Bale’s game does not match up to United's man.
One of Valencia’s key strengths lies in his consistency, which, despite only recovering from injury around November, led to his being named Manchester United’s player of the season.
Gareth Bale’s brilliance comes in flashes.
On his day, such as against Inter Milan in Tottenham’s inaugural Champions League campaign, the Welsh wizard is unplayable. Yet, this brilliance is tarnished by distinct periods of mediocrity and, notable exceptions such as against Inter Milan apart, a tendency to underperform against the very best teams.
Antonio Valencia might not grab the headlines with the magnitude of Bale, but when he plays, he almost always has a beneficial effect on the team's play—in a way where Bale sometimes falls short.
At his club too, Valencia has rivals.
England’s Ashley Young, Portugal’s Luis Nani and the recently acquired adaptability of the Japanese sensation Shiji Kagawa add up to almost certainly the best wide options in world football.
Yet, to me, Valencia trumps them all. Favoured for large parts of last season to the lightweight Young and severely inconsistent Nani, Valencia cut his inimitable trade with a series of unplayable performances that won him the club's top gong last term.
To help you on the way to refuting this claim (should you so wish), a number of other top-class wingers, I feel, jump out as options. From Di Maria at Madrid, to Mata at Chelsea, to Ribery at Bayern, there are alternatives.
Who would I want on my wing, though? Antonio Valencia any day.
Please tell me what you think. Argue, berate, shout, scream; whatever floats your boat.
So, who is the best winger in the world?