With games coming thick and fast fortunately United’s injury crisis seems to be over the worst with key players such as Ji-Sung Park and Antonio Valencia coming back to provide valuable boosts to the Reds hunt for silverware. However the most important return could be in the shape of Rio Ferdinand who, after making his return from a three month layoff last week could be the difference between success and failure for United this year.
Ferdinand is a class act no question, however his partnership with Captain Nemanja Vidic is beyond that and this is why Rio’s return could be a massive plus point for the table topping Reds.
Credit must go to Chris Smalling however who, in the absence of Rio or Vidic has deputised fantastically well. Many have made comparison with the fledgling Smalling and the seasoned pro Ferdinand as both possess calmness and swagger in what can be a rough business of defending. No doubt Smalling has been aided by training with the United’s number five and his continued presence at Carrington will surely turn Smalling into a top pro however at the minute Rio is still the man and to be fair Smalling acknowledges this.
The reason being is the Vidic-Ferdinand axis is the nigh on unassailable foundation of success. When the two play together United concede on average 0.64 goals a game as opposed to 1.37 when one is absent, making his return in the massive Champions League quarter final against Chelsea last week all the more important. There was a definite composure to the United backline that is more prevalent when Rio and Nemanja are together. This in my opinion is proved in that United’s recent “rocky patch” where the Reds suffered back to back defeats against Chelsea and Liverpool saw a completely unsettled back four. After those games the midfield received plenty of flack and it may well have merited the criticism in some quarters. However I am strong believer that if the defence is solid and the two centre midfielders are assured that they are in tandem with their back four then this enables them to play their game without having to worry about an unsteady back four. Many pundits hail Vidic as the best centre half in the world and few would disagree however I believe Rio makes Vidic a better player. Whether this is Rio silk to Vida’s steel or whether it is the unique understanding they possess between one another I’m not too sure; but the fact remains that in these two United have a title winning defence.
Rio has however had his injury problems ever since sustaining a back injury during United’s trip to Japan for the Club World Cup in 2008 Rio has had his consistency hampered by many a niggling injury and in truth it is these niggling injuries (along with some appalling man-management by Capello) that have cost him the United and England Captaincy, a great shame because Rio can certainly add ‘terrific leader’ to his CV.
The back is such an important component in the human body and any form of muscle strain can cause complete havoc to the rest of the body and it has clearly affected Rio. It is a common fact that injuries become more prevelant after thirty however the defender needs only look across the Old Trafford dressing room for inspiration that these injuries can be overcome. United veteran Ryan Giggs had much have his early career hampered by hamstring injuries however after taking up Yoga and styling a personal training regime Giggsy is able to keep fitter for longer and the fact that he is still skinning defenders at thirty-seven is testimony to his hard work. Rio stated recently in an interview that he had followed Ryan’s lead in taking up the art of Yoga and there is nothing to prevent Rio from going on for a number of years, particularly because he is a defender, just look at Paulo Maldini.
So, although United appear to have plenty in reserve when it comes to the central defensive position, I’ve already touched on Chris Smalling but there is also Jonny Evans who, despite a poor season by his standards still has plenty of potential and has been tipped by some inside the club to be the future United and Northern Ireland Captain. In fact it could be Smalling and Evans who forge the next United defensive partnership that will hopefully be good enough to emulate the likes of Pallister and Bruce, Ferdinand and Vidic, however that’s another story. With Vidic at twenty-nine and Ferdinand at thirty-two Sir Alex would hope that he can get another two to three years at least of consistent performances from the two, after that the future lies with the likes of Smalling and Evans but in the meantime Ferdinand and Vidic are still of paramount importance to the United team and their contribution over the next two months will be vital.
To finish what has essential been an ode to Rio I recently did a presentation on the Munich Air Disaster for my University course, for that presentation I interviewed a fan who lived in Manchester at the time of the crash and asked for his memories of the greatest tragedy in the history of Manchester United. He spoke of how it was a personal tragedy as the Busby Babes were so accessible; he also said that the connection between fan and player has all but gone. He may well have a point with players earning huge salaries and driving their Porches’ and Lamborghini’s, however people often forget though that many footballers come from working class backgrounds and in the case of Rio stay true to their routes. Rio is a firm promoter of grass roots football and is still involved in his local community of Peckham using his massive influence to further good causes; he is also above all a very nice guy not flash or cocky like some would have you believe. I’ve had the privilege of meeting him once or twice and seems like a very genuine and nice guy, always willing to sign autographs and chat with fans furthermore Rio also has his own twitter account to connect with his fans and he is definitely worth a follow as the guys got an opinion! So, although the link between player and fan may have been torn, it still hangs on through players like Ferdinand and it is because of this that he remains a great asset to the game.