By Ewan Roberts
As Alexander Buttner ran along the byline at Old Trafford, basking in the adulation of the 75,000 fans who had just witnessed the Dutchman score on his debut, a mischievous cameraman zoomed in on a pensive-looking Patrice Evra sat on the bench. If he hadn't realised it already, the French full-back, who has held his spot in Manchester United’s starting XI uncontested for almost six years, now knew that his place was under serious threat.
The former Vitesse Arnhem left-back had a tremendous match against Wigan. A constant outlet down the left flank, he attacked with speed, energy and persistence. That dogged attacking play eventually saw Buttner fire a cross-come-shot into the path of Chicharito to double United's advantage in the 63rd minute.
The Dutchman wasn't finished, though, and within minutes he was embarking on a run that would put the Red Devils out of sight. First he toyed with Aroune Kone, breaking free of the Ivorian's challenge, before bursting past Emmerson Boyce, shimmying around James McCarthy then side-stepping Ivan Ramis as he drilled the ball into the back of the net via Ali Al-Habsi from the tightest of angles.
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Buttner had a good goalscoring record in the Eredivisie, bagging 10 goals in 107 league appearances for Vitesse (by contrast, Evra has two goals in twice as many appearances for United) but had been otherwise largely unremarkable. Uncapped for the Netherlands nationals side, Buttner is behind Feyenoord's Bruno Martins Indi and PSV pair Erik Pieters and Jetro Willems in the Dutch pecking order.
A good left-back, but not an outstanding one, it is what Buttner represents – namely, a very visible sign that Evra is no longer undroppable, invulnerable or infallible – rather than his playing ability that is his greatest asset for the Red Devils and perhaps even for the Frenchman himself.
So often in the wake of a new signing, footballers cite the positivity of "healthy competition" and, whether or not that is vacuous PR spin for the benefit of the media and team morale, players generally perform better if they have to fight for their place, if they cannot afford to rest on their laurels, if mistakes and poor performances do not go unpunished.
Of course, some players display the opposite reaction and greet competition with fear, even contempt. Notably Fernando Torres withered in the face of the challenge of usurping Didier Drogba but has improved since his starting spot was guaranteed, while the Bayern Munich hierarchy feared what competition might do to the fragile psyche of Mario Gomez. Some players need to be loved and comforted more than others.
But now it appears that Sir Alex Ferguson wants to challenge Evra by removing the automatic right of reprieve that existed in the absence of genuine back-up or competition. His position is no longer assured; now he has to earn it.
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While Evra has ruled the left-back roost unchallenged at Old Trafford, the blue half of Manchester has seen Clichy and Aleksandar Kolorov, as well as Micah Richards and Pablo Zabaleta on the right side of defence, battle one another for a starting berth, and all parties' performances have improved as a result.
While a lack of incentive to perform could be attributable to Evra's slump in form, it is important to note that a lack of competition has also seen him rested and rotated less than any other player in Sir Alex's squad. The Frenchman has started 111 of United's last 118 league matches - 94 per cent - and has also featured in 36 of the club's 56 domestic and European cup games over that same period.
How much has fatigue robbed Evra of energy and contributed to his worsening performances? The full-back spot has become one of the most dynamic and influential positions on the field, with speed and stamina a necessary requirement. Starved of recuperation time and battling exhaustion, it is hardly surprising that Evra has looked lethargic of body and mind.
Now, finally, Sir Alex has two players competing for the crucial spot. Buttner's arrival and encouraging performance against Wigan might bring the best out of Evra, offering competition that could both reignite the Frenchman and preserve his fitness, while providing a genuine selection headache for the manager.
Timed to perfection, Buttner's advent also offers a worthy excuse to shield Evra from the scorn and vitriol that would likely greet him in United's next league game, an away trip to Anfield and a reacquaintance with a certain Luis Suarez. Free from the glare of such a high-profile reunion, Evra can begin plotting his return to the first team.
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