Stories coming out of Old Trafford last week suggested Manchester United captain and defensive-linchpin Nemanja Vidić would be back just in time for Sunday’s derby match against neighbours and closest challengers Manchester City.
But in yesterday’s Champions League press conference, Sir Alex Ferguson dampened the fans’ hope that the ever-widening hole in their defence would finally get its Serbian-shaped plug back.
In ruling Vidić out of tonight’s final group game against Cluj, he also ruled him out of the game at the Etihad.
Whether it was a bluff or a statement of fact, Ferguson suggested that the defence that looked in disarray for 45 minutes against Reading would get the chance to put things right against City.
But whatever the final score on Sunday, the return of Vidić cannot come soon enough for a team that scores for fun but are starting to concede like they have only just met.
Fans seeing three at the Madejski equating to at least twice that at the Etihad can put their abacuses away. United will tighten up. They have to.
But for as long as their captain is out, their likelihood of losing key games increases considerably. United lost the title on goal difference last season. Sometimes it is that simple.
Signed for only £7million in 2005, the centre-back has proved to be one of the most astute signings in Premier League history. In fact, one of the few players who may be even more of a bargain shares both his position and his armband.
The one difference is that Vincent Kompany will be playing on Sunday.
In the five seasons since Vidić first established himself in United’s first team, he made a total of 218 appearances in all competitions. Last season and this, that appearance total is only 15.
With the news that he will be back sooner rather than later, fans will be hoping his knee problems are finally behind him.
There will certainly be no rushing him back, and perhaps that is the reason the player has asked for a few more days training before he leads his team onto the field once again.
As great as United’s forward line is they only have one great centre-back. Of the rest, one used to be and still can be on occasion – usually when Vidić is beside him – and three have great potential but with sprinklings of mistakes and niggling injuries.
Vidić is a plaster on a wound that has grown more worrying in his absence. And when he does return, it will be when he can do so for a season not just a match.
Maybe it is all a mind-game rather than a precautionary measure. Maybe he will lead his team out on Sunday and Ferguson will add a wink with his pre-match handshake.
Nemanja Vidić played only six games on his last comeback. So either way, for the player’s sake and for United’s, you hope that when he does return it is for the long haul.
image: © nasmac