By Greg Stobart
Sir Alex Ferguson has been considered a lucky manager over the course of his 26-year career but the Manchester United boss will today curse the bad fortune that has left him with just two fit central defenders for a crucial period of the season, following news of another serious injury to Nemanja Vidic.
On Tuesday, United announced that club captain Vidic will be sidelined for around two months after undergoing an operation on a meniscus injury to his right knee.
It is the same knee the Serbian injured last December in Basle, ending his season and, if you ask United fans, the key moment in a title race that saw the Premier League trophy go to neighbours Manchester City on the final day of the campaign.
With Chris Smalling recovering from a broken metatarsal and Phil Jones also out for two months with a knee injury, it leaves 33-year-old Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans as the only fit centre-backs in the United squad.
|A MASSIVE LOSS
| MAN UTD'S RECORD WITH VIDIC
AV. GOALS CONCEDED PER GAME
| MAN UTD'S RECORD WITHOUT VIDIC
AV. GOALS CONCEDED PER GAME
Ferdinand and Evans are very capable defenders, and they started 23 games together last season, but Vidic’s absence will leave a massive hole, not least because of his experience, reading of the game and leadership.
The facts are stark. United have won 126 of the 176 Premier League games in which Vidic has featured at a win percentage of 73.68, compared to a 64.56 per cent winning record in the matches when the 30-year-old has not played (statistics provided by Infostrada).
That gap could comfortably be the difference between finishing second and third next May. Ferguson’s mind will drift back to the 4-4 home draw with Everton last April when Ferdinand and Evans fell apart in the final 10 minutes; he will also remember how vulnerable United looked against the same opponents when Michael Carrick started at centre-back in the defeat at Goodison Park last month.
Conversely, news of Vidic's plight will represent a huge boost to United’s title rivals: City, Chelsea and Arsenal.
Vidic is expected to miss, at the very least, Premier League games against Tottenham, Stoke, Chelsea, Arsenal, Aston Villa and Norwich as well as Champions League matches against Cluj, Braga and Galatasaray.
How United can get through those fixtures is now likely to define their season.
Even when Vidic does return, questions will now surely be asked about his long-term fitness after two serious injuries to the same knee within the space of a year.
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And while Smalling and Jones are being groomed for the future, they are not yet ready to fill in for a figure as dominant as Vidic, even if they were fit.
The focus will now turn to Ferdinand to lead the back four. The question is whether his own injury problems, especially a creaking back, can survive United’s defensive injury crisis.