Rafael maturing to fill the void left by Gary Neville at Manchester United

The right-back has arguably been the Red Devils' most consistent defender this season after suffering disappointment at the Olympic Games with Brazil in the summer
By Oliver Platt

Only 24 seconds had elapsed at Wembley on August 11 when Javier Aquino of Mexico nipped in to stab the Brazil right-back's pass away from its intended target. Rafael could only stand and watch on in horror as Oribe Peralta used his first touch to push the ball out his feet and his second to power a low shot past Gabriel.

Brazil were 1-0 down before 30 seconds had passed and they would not recover. Rafael had the best view in the sun-drenched stadium, marking a player on the edge of the penalty area, when Peralta headed home his second from a free kick. Hulk pulled one back in injury time but after the final whistle was blown the gold medals were beaming around the necks of the Mexico players.

The last thing Rafael needed was another bad start when he returned to Manchester United for the new Premier League season. "It was difficult," he reflected in October. "I was crucified a lot, perhaps unfairly. I gave a bad pass at that time. It was early in the game and I had time to turn. But it is a life lesson.

"I knew I had to be strong and keep my head up. That's what I did and I managed to put in some big performances and make myself first-choice here in Manchester."

Second place has become a familiar feeling for the 22-year-old in 2012 but next year might promise better things. United lead the top flight by two points; a slim margin, but a pleasing one given that they trailed Manchester City by six points after the same number of matches last season.

United's success has largely been based on Wayne Rooney and Antonio Valencia supplying the ammo with which Robin van Persie and Chicharito have been able to fire teams into submission, as evidenced by the come-from-behind victory over Aston Villa last weekend. But among an unsettled, if improving, group of defenders, Rafael has stood out increasingly as a pillar of consistency.

"He is maturing and learning all the time," Sir Alex Ferguson commented after a man-of-the-match performance against Liverpool in September. "Rafael has all the ingredients of a great player. He is blessed with great enthusiasm, skill and speed.

"He was quite impulsive and tended to over-commit himself. We have gone over it a few times but, bit by bit, it is all coming together and he was easily our best player [against Liverpool]."

On that day at Anfield, Rafael successfully contained Fabio Borini, who was substituted at half-time, before curling a wonderful left-footed shot past Pepe Reina six minutes after the break. He was similarly excellent against Arsenal, supplying the cross from which Van Persie gave United an early lead.

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Rafael's ability to attack was never in question. Les Kershaw, the United scout who first spotted him and his twin brother, Fabio, playing for a Fluminense youth team in 2005, described the full-backs as "two little whippets". "What impressed me most was the way that, when they got knocked down, they just got straight back up again and got on with it. They were like bouncing balls... very, very quick."

His defending had sometimes erred on the side of overenthusiastic and rash, though, and that is where the improvement has been most marked. Both Ferguson and the player himself have noted a new maturity this season. For the first time in their careers, Rafael and Fabio have been apart, the latter farmed out on loan to QPR having found captain Patrice Evra difficult to displace at left-back.

"It's not strange but it's different," Rafael told MUTV recently. "We're close and I was always together with him but it's been good for us, just to become more mature. I used to ask him all the time if I needed something but now I need more of my own mind so I've grown more mature. It's bad because I miss him but it's good to learn more."

The considerable void left by Gary Neville might have been filled. Rafael is certainly a different proposition to his predecessor; whereas Neville began his career as a centre-back and worked incessantly to improve his attacking play - his sidefooted crosses were unfailingly pinpoint by the end of his career - Rafael and Fabio played on either wing in the FA Cup tie against Arsenal in March 2011.

Although he faces some task in replacing Daniel Alves at right-back, the prospect of a World Cup on home turf gives Rafael further reason for optimism. Premier League title heartbreak followed by more of the same at the Olympic Games could have made this year a difficult one for Rafael, but he is ensuring it ends on a positive note.

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