Rafael battles second-season syndrome

The Brazilian found his feet in no time at United but has since been caught diving in. Tomorrow, he can begin to restore his standing, writes Ian Herbert

At least the manager knows which one he is now. Only when Rafael da Silva's twin brother Fabio tied the knot and started arriving at Carrington with a wedding ring on his finger, did Sir Alex Ferguson learn to pick his right-back and from his left-back.

The question at Wembley tomorrow is which of the Rafaels will be on show: the right-back who made such a sensational start to last season – operating as a more complete wing-back than most had imagined him to be in his Champions League debut in Denmark against Aalborg, scoring at the Emirates against Arsenal and dominating Robinho in the November 2008 Manchester derby – or the one who has not made the same strides in his second season.

There is little doubt that Rafael is the best right-back at Ferguson's disposal – a more convincing player in that position than John O'Shea and one who now ought to edge out Gary Neville time after time. The club captain's loss of pace can no longer compensate for the occasional accuracy of delivery which offers a reminder of his halcyon days.

But Rafael, who Ferguson signed from Fluminese with his twin in the face of interest from Arsenal's Arsène Wenger, has struggled badly against good opposition – most recently Craig Bellamy in the Carling Cup semi-final second leg and Milan's Ronaldinho last week. His probable contest with Stewart Downing down Villa's left tomorrow promises to be one of the Carling Cup final's most absorbing if – as expected – Ferguson decides to make up for denying the young Brazilian a place in last year's final victory over Tottenham Hotspur by giving him his Wembley chance.

There are signs Rafael does have the pace to operate as a more modern, attacking wing-back than Neville. Paul Parker, United's right back in the 3-1 League Cup final defeat to Aston Villa in 1994, believes that he can get forward and make goals in the way that Glen Johnson has done for Liverpool this season – though Parker views Johnson as comfortably better; the best right-back in England, in fact.

The problem is Rafael's tendency to dive in. He started life as a winger in Fluminese and is yet to get to grips with the defensive side of his game; learning that good defending at full-back is not about winning every challenge but getting close to the player running at you. After probably his most torrid evening yet against Ronaldinho in San Siro, Ferguson admitted this was a work in progress. "He has to learn, against Ronaldinho, that this is the real world," Ferguson said.

But Patrice Evra provides proof that attack-minded defenders sometimes take time to adjust to the defensive side of their game. Evra has described the sensation of feeling like he was in a "washing machine" as he initially struggled with the pace of the English game yet his ability to judge when to go forward and when not to is now a mainstay of his game and Evra has emerged as one of the best full-backs in the world.

Parker's replacement by an emerging Neville in 1995 – despite his own return after 18 months plagued by injuries – demonstrated Ferguson's ruthlessness with the old guard when the young talent he so covets starts materialising and Parker was soon on his way to Derby County. "The manager loves young players who play like old players with bags of confidence," Parker says. "He will always encourage that and make room for them. I remember when I was having my bad patch with injury and it was coming to the end of my time and Gary Neville was coming through. The boss didn't want to set him back by not playing him. He knew my time was up."

Rafael will believe the same goes for his emergence, though Ferguson will have no sentiment for his Brazilian either, if he does not see the development he has come to expect.

News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
News
Comic miserablist Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
peopleDirector of new documentary Misery Loves Comedy reveals how he got them to open up
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Environment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
environment
Life and Style
tech
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness