A legion of fantastic footballers have contributed to Manchester United’s success in the last 25 years. David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Peter Schmeichel, Rio Ferdinand and Roy Keane are just some among their celebrated number.
But bar Cristiano Ronaldo, none of the legendary figures which have passed through Old Trafford are missed more than Nemanja Vidic. This is the greatest tribute which can be paid to the Serbia warrior, who took to his former club’s website on Friday to announce he had fought his last battle on the pitch less than a month since he left Italy’s Internazionale by mutual consent.
What Louis van Gaal would give to possess such a player chiselled from pure granite at the heart of his defence.
“The time has come for me to hang up my boots,” said the 34-year-old. “The injuries I have had in the last few years have taken their toll. I would like to thank all the players I have played with, all the managers and staff I have worked with, and say a big ‘thank you’ to the fans for their support over the years.”
Forget the punch-drunk figure who ambled through a miserable season and a half at the San Siro.
Instead, fans should remember the redoubtable defender who is rightly in the mix for a place in an all-time Premier League XI. Vidic’s statistics at United from January 2006 to May 2014 are sensational and say everything about the former skipper.
The £7 million (Dh36.7m) signing from Spartak Moscow lifted five Premier League titles, one Champions League, one FIFA Club World Cup and three League Cups.
During his 211 top-flight appearances, 95 clean sheets were achieved. At 68 per cent, his win ratio is also the highest of any United player with more than 100 games for the club. He was a truly-committed player, whose supreme talent and desire to bleed for the cause make him a club legend.
In tandem with Ferdinand and in front of giant goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, manager Sir Alex Ferguson had the foundations for his last great side. The failure to replace Vidic by Van Gaal and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has contributed enormously to an unbalanced team which can either defend or attack with aplomb, but is never able to carry out both basic functions.
Phil Jones has proven far-too injury prone and erratic to make any comparison favourable, while the fact lightweight left-back Daley Blind has played regular games in the position is an embarrassment to the fearsome legacy left by Vidic.
Van Gaal’s negative football and even duller tactics have received fierce criticism. They come from an acknowledgement two defensive midfielders are needed to protect a flimsy rearguard in which only Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw have emerged with credit. If the former was partnered by Vidic rather than Blind – a player who began the season donning a hipster ‘bun’ haircut – he would be at an even higher level.
The decision to pursue Sergio Ramos alone last summer and park any other attempts to find an appropriate foil for Smalling has proven to be the most damaging of the series of awful decisions made by Van Gaal since his July 2014 arrival.
Memories of Vidic sparked by his retirement only seek to further highlight the Dutchman’s plentiful inadequacies.
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With cup competitions his only chance to prove he has a future at Manchester City, Willy Caballero has his heart set on achieving a dream double.
The Argentine keeper is set to face Aston Villa in Saturday’s FA Cup fourth round tie, just days after helping his side into the League Cup final following a 4-3 aggregate win over Everton. And with Caballero linked with a summer exit if Pep Guardiola replaces Manuel Pellegrini as City boss, the 34-year-old wants to make it a season to remember and show his value.
“It would be perfect to play in two cup competitions and win them both, we need to win everything this year,” said Caballero, who has been unable to displace Joe Hart as No. 1. “The most important thing is the first step, and we have done that, we are in the first final. Now we need to win the next game against Aston Villa.
“I play in the cup games so there is pressure on me to show what I can do. And even in the game against Everton, the first goal we conceded, so all the time it is pressure for me. But I am always ready to do my best in every game.
“If the boss decides I have to play against Aston Villa then I’m ready. They are important for me, every match of the League Cup or FA Cup.
“We listen to all the rumours [about the future of the players], but in a big team like this, it’s normal. But all the players every season here, the pressure is very high. So we are doing our best every game and it doesn’t matter about the rumours, they don’t affect us.
“It’s not easy to talk about Guardiola because he’s not here. But if he stays here, all the players for sure wish to play under Manuel every game.”
Caballero also played under Pellegrini at Malaga and triumphing twice in the cups with City would also help wipe out the memory of his only other Wembley appearance, when he was beaten three times in a disappointing debut defeat to Arsenal in the 2014 Community Shield.
“It’s a bad memory for me, but I forgot this game and try to think about the new one now, this [League Cup] final,” he adds. “I am very happy I have the chance to go back and change that.”
But City’s bid to win an unprecedented four trophies, including Premier League and Champions League, this season have been dented by the loss of record signing Kevin De Bruyne, out for up to 10 weeks after ankle and knee injuries in Wednesday’s success over Everton.
Pellegrini says he will not move to replace De Bruyne in the transfer market, nor turn to youngster Patrick Roberts, who will instead join Celtic on loan.
Having been without Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Vincent Kompany through injury, the City boss has faith in the strength of his squad as he said: “You have some players that are impossible to replace because they are top players, but we did it.
“We replaced Kun, we replaced David and we replaced Vincent Kompany. That is why we are involved in all the competitions and three points from the leaders of the Premier League.
“It’s a challenge for the squad and of course it’s a challenge for the players that play where Kevin does. I think that Raheem Sterling, Jesus Navas, David will have more responsibility knowing that Kevin is not here.”
Louis van Gaal is able to breathe a little easier after Manchester United made light work of a potentially tricky FA Cup assignment against Derby, winning 3-1 at the iPro Stadium late on Friday night.
The United boss arrived in the east midlands under heavy pressure and intense scrutiny after months of indifferent results, uninspiring performances and reports – denied by the Dutchman – that he offered to quit after last weekend’s home defeat by Southampton.
His captain Wayne Rooney quickly settled the nerves with a superb opening goal after 16 minutes but George Thorne’s equaliser before half-time might have had Van Gaal worrying again as Derby threatened to add their name to the list of lower league teams, which include MK Dons, Cambridge, Middlesbrough and Sheffield United, to cause United problems in the cups under his tenure.
However, well-worked goals from Daley Blind and Juan Mata in the second half saw United progress into the fifth round in a much more comfortable manner than was perhaps anticipated before kick-off.
United’s dream of a first FA Cup win since 2004 remains alive and they will return to Premier League matters, at home to Stoke City on Tuesday, with confidence at least partly restored. Derby, meanwhile, must wait for their next opportunity to end a wait for an FA Cup victory over United that stretches back to 1897.
A defensive injury glut meant that there was an unfamiliar look to the visitors’ starting XI, with Guillermo Varela and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, 18, at full-back, but the sharpness of United’s passing in the early stages belied their recent struggles.
It took them less than three minutes to cut Derby open, the impressive Anthony Martial side-footing over from Rooney’s lay-off, and in the 16th minute a similar combination yielded the opening goal.
On United’s left, Martial’s pass into the box was gathered by Rooney, who moved the ball inside onto his right foot and shaped a sublime shot around Scott Carson and into the top-right corner. The United captain had been marginally offside when the ball was played to him, but the goal stood, giving Rooney his sixth goal in six games as his resurgence continues.
Derby, fifth in the Championship, had barely laid a glove on United, David de Gea comfortably fielding a 20-yard shot from right-back Cyrus Christie and a downward header by Nick Blackman, but against the run of play they equalised in the 37th minute. Chris Martin hoisted a clever pass into the box from the right and Thorne, untracked by United’s midfielders, strode through to stab a left-foot shot inside the left-hand post.
The boisterous travelling fans fell silent and Thomas Ince threatened to add to their disquiet shortly before half-time when he cut in from the right and flashed a shot wide.
Mocking chants of “Sacked in the morning!” echoed around the ground and there was another scare for Van Gaal early in the second half when Blackman drilled over. But United gathered their senses, and having set an attack in motion, Blind continued his run from defence and arrived with striker-like timing to turn Jesse Lingard’s low right-wing cross past Carson with a neat first-time shot from 10 yards.
Michael Carrick made his return from a four-game lay-off as late replacement for Morgan Schneiderlin and United made the game safe 10 minutes later when Mata tucked away Martial’s cut-back.