Sir Alex Ferguson has challenged Michael Carrick to maintain his outstanding recent form and become the leading midfielder that the Manchester United manager believes he can be.
With Darren Fletcher, Anderson and Tom Cleverley all ruled out for long periods this season, Ferguson thinks that Carrick's influence has been key in forcing United back into the title race.
The midfielder, who has been left out of recent England squads, started in each of United's three recent Champions League finals and has won the Premier League title four times in his five seasons at Old Trafford – yet he has remained a frustrating figure there.
Carrick, an £18.6m signing from Tottenham in 2006, tends to begin seasons slowly but his recent contribution was summed up by an outstanding solo goal in the 2-0 win at Queen's Park Rangers before Christmas. Ferguson was shocked that it was the midfielder's first goal for the club since the start of last year but feels the time is right for Carrick to become the side's "pivotal player".
"We have two experienced players playing right at their peak now. That's Rio Ferdinand and Michael Carrick," Ferguson said. "Rio Ferdinand's form in the last few weeks has been absolutely fantastic, and Michael's been one of our best players.
"He's been instrumental in what's happening to the team at the moment. He's grabbed the nettle, there's no question about that. In some ways, he's maybe seen the departure of Paul Scholes as his opportunity to be the main man in midfield.
"I think he's been helped by the energy and determination of Phil Jones besides him. The boy's been quite amazing. But Carrick's performances have been quite outstanding. I think both Michael and Phil help each other. I think it's time Michael became the pivotal player of our team.
"We've always known he's got that in him," Ferguson added. "He's a laid-back character – quiet, unassuming – but in different periods during his time here he's shown his quality. Now is the time for him to start a long period of dominating the centre of midfield like he has in the last few weeks."
Veteran Ryan Giggs has also been thrust on to centre stage in recent weeks and scored in Wednesday's 5-0 win at Fulham. He may have turned 38 last month but Giggs shows no signs of slowing down, according to the United manager, who feels the Welshman could extend his stint at Old Trafford.
"I think Ryan can play another year," Ferguson said. "There's no evidence that his energy, stamina or speed are decreasing – in fact, it's exactly the same as it was the last two or three years. It's amazing. I know it's mid-season now and it all depends on what Ryan thinks about his future, too ... but on the evidence of what we're seeing, I think he can play for another year."
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