They will be billed as the games of the season but the Manchester United captain, Nemanja Vidic, said he doubted the next two fixtures, against Arsenal and Chelsea, will be pivotal events when it comes to deciding the Premier League. The season had proved too erratic for Sky Television to be talking of "Decisive December".
"It is hard to say, honestly," said Vidic. "It would give us a big advantage if we won those two games and take us into a great position but, if you look at what has happened since the start of the season, you can't predict anything. All we can do is look at ourselves, take it game by game, although I'm positive about what we can achieve."
Despite the fact that United topped their group, Vidic admitted there had been nervousness spreading through the team as the full-time whistle approached in Tuesday's 1-1 Champions League draw with Valencia. United are not a team known for shirking a challenge but they were anxious to avoid finishing second and facing the prospect of a journey to Munich, Madrid or Barcelona in the spring. Domestically, however, the great encounters with London's two major clubs cannot be postponed.
"Arsenal is the biggest game we have had since the beginning of the season and now you are coming to the stage when teams are starting to separate themselves from the rest and we are starting to show a lot of good form," said Vidic, who unusually to English ears described the encounter with Arsenal as a "derby". This it may be in the same way that Juventus v Internazionale is the "Derby d'Italia" – a showdown between, traditionally, Serie A's two pivotal forces.
"It is a derby and in a derby you are not going to have the same number of chances that we had against Valencia," he said. "Everything you are given, you have to take." Dimitar Berbatov, perhaps Vidic's closest friend at Old Trafford, had enough opportunities to have repeated the five goals he scored against Blackburn last month; the game that suggested that if United were to regain the Premier League title, it would not be by default.
If they do, it will be Vidic who lifts the trophy, which a year ago would have appeared a long shot. His name was being continually linked with Real Madrid, his wife, Ana, was supposedly unhappy in Manchester and Rio Ferdinand seemed the logical recipient of the armband. Instead, it fell to Vidic because, unlike some of his rivals, he was guaranteed his place in the team week-in and week-out. The Serb has been unafraid to bare his teeth in public – demanding that United put an end to their habit of conceding sloppy goals that threatened to derail their season. In the Champions League, they shipped a grand total of one.
"I am coming to an age where I have to take a bit more responsibility," said Vidic. "If you are young, then you can play without responsibility but I cannot any longer. I have to show an example to some of these young players we have – and that is a natural progression when you're getting older. The more responsibility you have, the more pressure you have and your focus and concentration is better. Of course, I enjoy it."
The United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, rates Paul Scholes as "doubtful" for Monday's game with Arsenal at Old Trafford. The veteran midfielder has not featured since the victory over Rangers last month, when he picked up a groin injury.
Scholes had been expected to play some part against Valencia but, after a minor setback in training, Ferguson fears he will not be able to call upon him against Arsène Wenger's side. "Paul tried training on Sunday and came off," Ferguson said. "He will be doubtful for next Monday."
United are rather more optimistic about Ferdinand, who was forced out of Tuesday's game five minutes into the second half after feeling some discomfort in his hamstring. "Rio felt it at half-time," said Ferguson. "He wanted to try it but it still felt tight. We weren't prepared to take a chance. There was no point because we had Chris Smalling to come on. He has six days and I am sure he will be OK for Monday."
The manager was full of praise for goalscorer Anderson, who hit the back of the net for only the second time in 109 appearances for the club when he tucked home the rebound to a powerful Park Ji-sung strike as United secured the draw they required to top Group C.
"Anderson has been absolutely brilliant in the last three games," said Ferguson. "He has been tremendous. He offers something different from the other midfield players we have got. He has tremendous pace, can beat a man and is always decisive in his passing."
Results: Bursaspor 0-4 Valencia, Man Utd 0-0 Rangers; Rangers 1-0 Bursaspor, Valencia 0-1 Man Utd; Man Utd 1-0 Bursaspor, Rangers 1-1 Valencia; Bursaspor 0-3 Man Utd, Valencia 3-0 Rangers; Valencia 6-1 Bursaspor, Rangers 0-1 Man Utd; Bursaspor 1-1 Rangers, Man Utd 1-1 Valencia.