The infectious enthusiasm of Nemanja Vidic has proved to be the crucial factor in Manchester United's defensive improvement this season, according to Gary Neville.
The United captain believes the tough-tackling Serbia international has set the standard for his colleagues. United's new-found rearguard solidity has provided the platform for their improved form and, as they look to maintain their advantage over Chelsea at the top of the Premiership, Neville has paid tribute to Vidic's contribution.
"Nemanja has been nothing short of fantastic over the last two or three months," Neville said. "He has been an outstanding performer, a good old-fashioned defender who loves to head the ball and loves to tackle. He is infectious in the way he makes everybody around him want to defend in the same manner. It is great to have defenders like that who never take a backward step."
After arriving at Old Trafford from Spartak Moscow in January with a big reputation and a £7m price tag, Vidic has admitted he found the adjustment to Premiership life difficult. At one stage he even turned to his central defensive partner Rio Ferdinand and claimed he did not think he could make the transition.
Thankfully for United, Vidic's settling-in period is now complete and he is showing the form that made him such an integral member of Serbia's defence that qualified for last summer's World Cup without conceding a goal. A knee injury stopped Vidic playing in Germany but now the English game is getting to see the full range of his combative talents.
"It takes time to settle," said Neville. "You have seen that with both Nemanja and Patrice Evra. They both came to us part way through the season, moving to completely different surroundings, with a different atmosphere, a different pressure and a different style of football.
"But they both wanted to learn and now they have taken to it. Nemanja is keeping Wes Brown and Mikaël Silvestre, who are excellent players in their own right, out of the team, so he must be doing well."
However, Neville is not about to downplay the importance of Ferdinand to United's current winning momentum. The record signing still suffers from lapses of concentration, but he consistently appears to be one of the most effective defenders in Europe, a fact which has not escaped Neville's notice.
"Rio is very important to our back four and, for me, still the one single most important member," he said. "He offers that calmness and experience and positional sense. Nothing fazes him. He has an excellent partnership with Nemanja and we are blessed to have them because they complement each other so well. Last season, the manager said he wanted to create a solid foundation at the back. We are seeing more of that and we look like we are enjoying defending again."
Park Ji-Sung, meanwhile, is fully recovered from his ankle ligament injury and hoping to force his way back into the United midfield. The South Korean has not played for United since suffering the injury at home to Spurs in early September and, after returning to full training, he is anxious to make up for lost time.
He underwent surgery and has had to watch from the sidelines as United have moved clear of Chelsea at the top of the Premiership table. "I am entirely recovered from the injury," he said. "Since last week I've been in training, so I don't think there is going to be any problem. The two ligaments in my ankle were broken, so I had surgery to connect them, and then I had to have three months of rehab."
The 25-year-old admits to mixed feelings at being forced to sit out so much of the first half of the season, while his team-mates have been setting the pace. "As a football player, watching games is not very pleasant," he said. "My team is top of the League, so I'm very glad about that. But I still want to play. I am very impressed with the team's performances, but I'd like to join in and show my own ability. I'd like to contribute."Reuse content