Think of Nemanja Vidic and images emerge of the consummate warrior footballer.
A centre-back par excellence whose reputation was iron-cast throughout 300 uncompromising appearances for Manchester United from 2006-14. The perfect foil for the elegant Rio Ferdinand and rock upon which the grandest era in Red Devils’ history was built.
This combination of teak toughness, raw physicality and innate defensive acumen make Vidic a legend of the Old Trafford terraces. Those supporters – who still bellow the “Nemanja, oh oh oh oh” chant – remember him diving, headfirst, at the feet of Emmanuel Adebayor as the Arsenal striker struck a ferocious goal-bound volley in 2009.
They cherish his defiance in the driving rain of Moscow during the 2007/08 Champions League final and even the ridiculous attempt to block the ball with his head while on the ground against Swansea in 2012/13’s last, victorious season under the stewardship of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Their former captain spilled blood for the Red Devils cause until the very end. A flailing elbow from Rickie Lambert did damage on the south coast as he signed off with a 1-1 draw at Southampton, prior to an unfulfilling stint at Serie A’s Internazionale which ended with premature retirement aged 34 in January 2016.
Yet there is another, more sedate life outside the gladiatorial arena of elite football.
“I retired two years ago and I did not touch the ball for nearly two years,” Vidic tells Sport360° while in Dubai to hand over the latest adidas “Cold Blooded” boot pack to the city’s adidas Tango League Captains. “I played one testimonial for Michael Carrick [in June 2017] and that is it.
“I like sports without the contact now. I had enough in my career, a lot of head knocks, concussions, so I like more elegant sports now.
“I am doing some interviews, socialising with people, doing some travelling, doing pro-licence course and, every now and then, ambassadorial work for Manchester United.
“I am doing the things I could not do when I was a football player. Enjoying my life, spending time with my family, learning to play golf, skiing.
“I have had an exciting few years. I do not think about the work, I am enjoying my life.”
Vidic’s heyday can seem a lifetime ago at United. An unfitting final campaign was provided by 2013/14’s David Moyes debacle, with the eccentric and dogmatic ex-Netherlands boss Louis van Gaal not subsequently faring much better.
Signs of a renaissance, although filtered through a pragmatist’s prism, have been witnessed under Jose Mourinho – one of the main protagonists of the Chelsea v United rivalry which defined Vidic’s glorious stint in England. Does the ex-Serbia star ever regret not working under the ‘Special One’?
The 36-year-old replies: “He is a top manager. Obviously, I never worked with him.
“But I did work with Sir Alex Ferguson. So, that isn’t bad.”
An understated way of describing, arguably, the greatest manager in football’s annals. The Scot’s penchant for revolution and eye for evolution ensued almost-continual success throughout 26 years in the Old Trafford hot seat.
His eye for a player was legendary. Just £7 million (Dh50.5m) bought Vidic from Spartak Moscow in December 2006 – he made a major contribution to 15 trophy successes.
What made Ferguson so special?
“There are many things, not just one,” says Vidic. “He had to have the knowledge, leadership skills, how you treat the people, creating the environment where the players work to give the best for the club.
“Every player who played under him, I think they give 120 per cent. Not many managers did that.
“His qualities are being honest, direct, he’d give you support and responsibility. He asked you to do the things you can do, not what you cannot do.
“That is the biggest criticism of some managers. They try and teach you something you cannot do.”
Even great men have their faults, however.
Vidic says: “There are a lot of good memories to share. He liked to joke, as well.
“But when he joked, with his Scottish accent, I didn’t understand.
“I thought that I had to smile, even if I didn’t understand.”
January’s events have improved the mood in the red half of Manchester. City were dramatically usurped in the race to sign Arsenal wizard Alexis Sanchez, while Mourinho inked fresh term until at least 2020.
A distant second place in the Premier League is United’s preserve at present. Can continental competition – La Liga’s Sevilla are up next in the round of 16 – bring elation?
“For Manchester United, they are always looking for the trophies,” Vidic says.
“I believe Jose Mourinho, with the way he manages and history at other clubs, he always does well in Europe. Last year, we won the Europa League.
“With the way we’ve played this year, I think we have a chance to challenge for the Champions League.”
The spoils of hard-earned glory are now Vidic’s to enjoy. But a new apathetic attitude to playing football does not take away from his gratitude for what the sport gave him, and continued lessons it can bring.
“I have three kids, so all three play football,” says Vidic of the importance of grassroots. “It is important not just for people who will be professionals, but it is important for the young kids to be in groups, learn to socialise and be responsible.”
A combative past and a communal present. Retirement has brought out the nuances in Vidic, a competitor few will forget at Old Trafford and beyond.
Pep Guardiola called for players to get better protection after Leroy Sane was left facing a spell on the sidelines following the 2-0 FA Cup win at Cardiff.
Guardiola was left counting the cost of a fourth-round victory secured by first-half goals from Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling.
Sane failed to come out for the second half after Joe Bennett’s high tackle left the Germany winger with an ankle injury, and the Cardiff defender was sent off in the final seconds for another poor challenge on City substitute Brahim Diaz.
“He (Sane) will be out for a while – minimum two weeks, three weeks, one month, we will see tomorrow (Monday) exactly,” said City manager Guardiola. “I said many times the only thing they (referees) have to do is protect the players.
“I can accept our disallowed goal, I don’t know why but I accept. But please protect the players.
“Not the Man City players, all players. The only thing they can do is that – to protect the players – because it would not happen again.
“It happened once with Leroy, then it happened with Brahim again at the end.
“So for the football in general, and for the players who are the artists, they must do that. That’s why we are all here.”
City remain in the hunt for an unprecedented quadruple after booking their place in the last 16 of the FA Cup.
Guardiola’s side have a 12-point lead at the top of the Premier League, play Arsenal in the final of the Carabao Cup, and resume their Champions League campaign next month.
“There are no words to describe the pride I feel about my players and my team,” Guardiola said. “We have played many games and we do not have a big squad because of so many injuries and players with problems.
“But they are ready to play every three days and I feel something very special about that.
“Playing in the FA Cup away to a Championship team like Cardiff, who are at the top of the league, is so complicated, but we react again like a mature team.
“We are in the draw and hopefully we can have a team at home, that is my wish.”
Asked about some of Cardiff’s dubious tackling, manager Neil Warnock replied that Manchester City were not blameless.
“They dished it out a bit, they had one or two naughty tackles,” Warnock said. “He (Guardiola) is in England, what do you expect?
“I suppose when you’re like that, you want everything to be nice, pretty and perfect. But you don’t get that here, you get different challenges.
“They’re so quick, that’s the problem, with the movement and everything else, you think you’re there and all of a sudden he’s gone.”
But Warnock was critical of Bennett’s late red card, which rules the full-back out of next weekend’s crunch Championship trip to Leeds.
“I was disappointed he got sent off at the end,” Warnock said. “Obviously he doesn’t want to go to Leeds, because it was an absolutely pathetic challenge when he is on a booking.
“To do something like that I think is disrespectful to his team-mates.”
Michy Batshuayi scored twice as Chelsea marched on in the FA Cup with a 3-0 win over Newcastle at Stamford Bridge.
Defeat by Arsenal last Wednesday saw the Blues eliminated from the Carabao Cup at the semi-final stage.
But Chelsea avoided elimination from a second cup competition in a week as Batshuayi’s first-half double and a brilliant Marcos Alonso free-kick ensured progression to Monday’s fifth-round draw.
A second win from eight games this month, not including the third-round penalty shootout victory over Norwich, eased talk of crisis, on the field at least.
Antonio Conte has insisted he is happy at Chelsea, but did little to diffuse talk of friction with the club hierarchy.
Chelsea supporters sang their support for the Italian here; the visiting fans did likewise for Rafael Benitez.
Benitez knows all about turmoil at Chelsea. He secured Champions League qualification and the 2013 Europa League during a seven-month interim spell, but the affection of many Blues fans was lacking.
Batshuayi scored the goal which delivered the Premier League title in Conte’s first season in charge.
The Belgium striker now has 10 goals this season. Not a bad record, particularly when you consider 14 of his 25 appearances have come off the substitutes’ bench, many in the dying embers of games.
The frustration with Batshuayi centres on his poor hold-up play. Too often he relinquishes possession when an outlet is needed.
And he could be allowed to leave before Wednesday’s transfer deadline, particularly if a rumoured deal for Roma’s Edin Dzeko materialises.
Christensen squares to Rüdiger who finds Pedro and the Spaniard gets his head up and pings a fantastic ball for Hazard who plays a well-weighted pass to match the stride of Alonso which he squares for Batshuayi to tap-in. Great team goal. 1-0. #CFC pic.twitter.com/Mp5aDno1oU
— Chelsea GIFs (@ChelseaGIFs) January 28, 2018
David Luiz is out of favour at present and his future has been the subject of speculation, but his absence here was attributed to an ankle knock in training.
Chelsea struggled to hold on to the ball in the first half and might have gifted a goal to Newcastle.
But Dwight Gayle’s indecision reprieved Davide Zappacosta after the Italian’s poor pass was intercepted. Willy Caballero then saved a Jonjo Shelvey volley.
Chelsea had half-chances, but their accuracy in the final third was perhaps best summed up by a Danny Drinkwater shot which went out for a throw in.
That changed when Antonio Rudiger fed Pedro down the right and the Spaniard threaded a cross-field pass 40 yards to Eden Hazard, turning the Magpies defence.
Hazard waited and teed-up the on-rushing Alonso, who had the presence of mind to play the ball on for Batshuayi to tuck in. There may have been a suspicion of offside, but without the Video Assistant Referee, there was no review and the goal stood.
Rudiger curled a left-footed shot from 25 yards around the far post before Chelsea, and Batshuayi, enjoyed further good fortune.
Pedro and Hazard combined to find the striker, whose shot ballooned up off the leg of Jamaal Lascelles and in.
10 – Michy Batshuayi is the third player to reach double figures for goals for @ChelseaFC in all competitions this season after Alvaro Morata and Eden Hazard (12 each). Prestige.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 28, 2018
Caballero saved from Shelvey and Chancel Mbemba in quick succession before Chelsea resumed on the attack.
Pedro fired just over and Alonso had a volley saved by Karl Darlow.
Alonso had his seventh goal of the season when he curled in a 25-yard free-kick after Zappacosta was fouled.
Darlow denied Batshuayi in stoppage time as the Blues eased into the next round.