Nemanja Vidic turned 30 on Friday, the kind of age when footballers, however good, start to look over their shoulders to the young men wanting their shirt. Manchester United have more hungry footballers than any other comparable club and even the man who wears the captain's armband knows that it and a record that has seen him play in three European Cup finals in as many years will be scant protection when Sir Alex Ferguson, cold-eyed, surveys his world.
"If you want to play for Manchester United, you have to win everything," Vidic said as United limbered up for a defence of their title in the United States last summer. "You have to be successful; otherwise new players will come and fight for your place."
In the corridors of Bucharest's National Stadium on Tuesday night, digesting a dismissal for a tackle that warranted a yellow rather than red, Vidic returned to the theme, pointing out the progress made by Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, adding with a smile: "You must not forget Jonny Evans, a player who has come on a lot very quickly."
That was why what should have been a routine Champions' League fixture mattered against Otelul Galati, a team the players would have known little. It came on the end of a hard few days for Vidic. The previous Tuesday, in Maribor, he had made his comeback to lead Serbia in their final European Championship qualifier, but he missed a penalty, they lost and were eliminated.
Vidic began uncertainly, passing across the face of his own 18-yard box with almost disastrous consequences and then seeing his goalkeeper, Anders Lindegaard, drive a clearance against his back. He recovered himself but then came the wild tackle on Gabriel Giurgiu that ensured he will miss the remainder of United's group games.
"It has been a long, long recovery for me," he said. "I am feeling healthy. Physically, I felt good against Slovenia but mentally, well, it was a very, very sad result. It takes a lot of getting over. [Against Otelul] I had only 60 minutes and you know why it was only 60 minutes. I came to Bucharest to give my best and prove what I can do. I thought I was unlucky but this is life. For Sunday, against City, I am ready to play."
His manager will be grateful for that. Vidic is probably pound for pound the best defender Ferguson has signed for Manchester United – his £7 million fee from Spartak Moscow was a fifth of what he had paid Leeds for Rio Ferdinand less than four years before. However, this season he has yet to complete a game for United after suffering a calf injury in the opening fixture at West Bromwich Albion and the players Roberto Mancini can deploy at Old Trafford this afternoon could stretch muscle, reaction and temperament to the limit.
"The last three or four derbies have been very close and by the end of the game you feel exhausted," he said. "When I think of the Manchester games you think of Scholesy's headerto win at City in the last minute; Michael Owen scoring with the last kick at Old Trafford and there was Rooney with that volley to win at Old Trafford last season. It always seems to be decided by one incredible goal, one brilliant piece of skill. It shows you how close the teams are now. It could be the same on Sunday because they have incredible players, too."
Vidic said he had been studying film of Sergio Aguero, perhaps the most potent weapon in Mancini's armoury. Vidic started slowly at United, which is why he can appreciate the Argentinian's electric start. "I have never faced Aguero before, not even when he played for Argentina," he said. "We have watched some highlights of him. You are talking about a top-class player.
"Sometimes, it takes time to come to terms with the Premier League but he has found his form very quickly and scored immediately. That tells you what kind of player he is and they also have Edin Dzeko, who has had a very good start to the season. This is a derby game, between the two top teams in the English League; it would be ridiculous if you were not excited."
Vidic did not seem a natural choice to replace Gary Neville as captain of Manchester United. Ferdinand appeared the more natural face of United but Ferguson argued that the Serb was virtually guaranteed his place. He leads through presence.
"Vidic is a great footballer," Lindegaard said. "He fills the dressing room, if you know what I mean. He is not a captain who shouts at you, he does not lose his temper but he is a very impressive man, a born leader who leads right from the very front."
Having begun his career with Red Star Belgrade, Vidic knows all about derbies where the league title as well as local pride is on the line. "Red Star against Partizan is passion, it is everywhere," he said. "On the pitch you can hear the crowds singing every minute you are playing. The noise is incredible and you know you cannot lose. This derby will be similar. It is the biggest derby in England, I think, especially at the moment."
Manchester United v Manchester City is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 1.30pm
Ferguson: Money won't upset balance of power
Sir Alex Ferguson has said that Manchester United do not need vast sums of money to match Manchester City's challenge. The United manager denied suggestions that the enormous resources available to the City manager, Roberto Mancini, made it inevitable the champions would, sooner or later, be eclipsed.
"I don't see it as an important issue with us at the moment," he said. "There is not a lot we can do with the training ground – other than the improvements we are doing next summer. We are ahead of the game in that respect. We do well scouting abroad in terms of getting young players in. If I need a player, the Glazers have been great; they have always provided the money and will continue to do so. But the difference between us and Manchester City is that we have built over a long period, there is a structure here. City have had to do it in a quick spell. When the Abu Dhabi people took over, they wanted instant results, which they are getting."
Ferguson added that heavy spending put additional pressure on managers, as owners wanted an immediate return on their investment. "Money gives managers a better chance in the modern game because there are less and less top players," he said. "It is obvious where they are. But when it falls flat, that is when it becomes difficult. The judgement when you buy players has to be more focused. That is a fact.
"If you make bad buys, it is your responsibility. Maybe the scouts haven't done the work, maybe you have only seen the player a couple of times – and then the responsibility lies on your shoulders very heavily."
United's options at the back
Ferdinand and Vidic
A combination that Gary Neville said had never been bettered in his time at Old Trafford and which Vidic says plays by instinct. Vidic is the tough guy, Ferdinand adds the elegance but age is catching up with them.
Smalling and Evans
Perhaps the pairing that will take United through the next few years. They have played together in the three decisive victories over Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea.
Jones and Evans
Phil Jones might find his versatility a hindrance to cementing a permanent place. He has also played at full-back and, against Liverpool, largely without success as a midfield man-marker.Reuse content