Vidic dedicates his goals to a poignant memory

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The Independent Football

2006 was threatening to become one of the more vexing years in the young career of Nemanja Vidic, the central defender of Manchester United and Serbia-now-without-Montenegro. Ring-rusty when thrown into the Premiership in January with an extravagant £7.2 million fee around his neck, he struggled to make an impression; desperate to win over United followers at the World Cup in June, he fell victim to a tackle in training by Mateja Kezman and missed the whole show as his team-mates lost all three games, including a 6-0 humiliation by Argentina.

How's your luck? Not good, until the end of September, when it suddenly changed with a return to the United side for two good workouts, away to Reading and Benfica. Tall, strong and better-looking than a proper old-fashioned centre-half has any right to be, Vidic has hardly missed a game since. He already has one player-of-the-month award from the club's supporters to his name and was outstanding again as United recovered in fine style to win the home game with Benfica last Wednesday, qualifying as one of England's quartet of group winners for the Champions' League knockout stage.

"I'm enjoying it and playing well," he said later, before elaborating on the difficulties of joining United more than a month after the end of his second season in Russia with Spartak Moscow. "In the first two or three months in Manchester, I found it difficult to settle. I had rested 40 days, the team [United] had played 30 games, I start to play and I am not ready. If you want to play in England, you need to be 100 per cent ready. I was told it is strong and quick here. Now I'm used to that, I do a good pre-season and feel much better."

Much better certainly than after his debut alongside Rio Ferdinand at Blackburn last February in the partnership supposed to bring stability to United's defence for possibly the first time since Jaap Stam's sudden departure; Ferdinand was sent off, United conceded three goals in the first half and were beaten 4-3. With the other January signing, Patrice Evra, finding the adjustment to English football equally fraught, Sir Alex Ferguson's judgement was under question. It has been vindicated since. Vidic has proved as solid as in his early days with Red Star Belgrade and then Spartak, a fierce competitor (sometimes a little too fierce in training), who has brought out the best in Ferdinand and become a real threat with his heading at set-pieces.

He dedicates every goal he scores to Vladimir Dimitrijevic, a friend and colleague at Red Star who died of a heart attack on the training ground aged 20: "I grew up with him, played in the same teams and shared the same room with him when we went to Belgrade, 15 years old. After you realise he's no longer in this world, it's difficult..."

Wednesday's third goal of the season - Wigan and Portsmouth were the other victims - eased United's nerves at a critical juncture just before the interval, and enabled Vidic to speak from a position of strength about their prospects when the Champions' League resumes in two months' time: "We don't need to fear anybody, we're a good team with lots of experience. If we play like in the second half [against Benfica] there's no team in the world we need to fear."

Indeed, it is fair to say that possible opponents in Friday's draw such as Real Madrid, Porto, PSV, Internazionale and even Barcelona would prefer to avoid United. At full strength, they are a vibrant side in the club's best traditions. The main threat to serious hopes of becoming champions of either England or Europe again would appear to be losing senior players as the pace hots up in those two competitions in the new year.

But the same might be said of the other contenders who have given Britain a best-ever representation in the competition's second phase. Arsène Wenger has insisted Arsenal will not buy in January, Liverpool looked poor when sending a few second-strings into action against Galatasaray and even Chelsea would be vulnerable without, say, John Terry or Didier Drogba.

The bookmakers are offering only 11-8 against an English club succeeding Barcelona as champions, yet go odds-on Manchester United to win nothing this season. It seemed diplomatic not to broach that with Mr Vidic.