By Oliver Platt
At the conclusion of every title race and relegation battle supporters, players and managers alike look back at certain moments on the field of play and see it as decisive in their team's fortunes. Rio Ferdinand might have delivered one such moment at Ewood Park on Monday night.
With the score between Blackburn and Manchester United deadlocked at 0-0, Ferdinand denied Yakubu a potentially enormous goal in both Blackburn's quest for survival and United's chase of a 20th league title.
Marcus Olsson seemed to have left the Nigerian striker with a tap-in but Ferdinand, compromised in his positioning due to the need to simultaneously cover both Yakubu and the unmarked Junior Hoilett at the back post, appeared out of nowhere to divert the ball to safety with a sliding challenge timed to perfection.
With a one-goal lead to defend, the game might have turned out differently for Blackburn, who eventually fell to a 2-0 loss and slipped into the relegation zone on goal difference. It could also have played part in determining the destination of the Premier League title. By gaining three points here, United can now afford to lose against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium later this month and still claim the league crown by matching City's results the rest of the way.
There will be plenty more 'what if?' moments along the way but Ferdinand's role on the night, and indeed over the past two or three months, has extended beyond that one incident. It has been a bumpy couple of seasons for the 33-year-old, who has had to deal with age and injuries to establish himself for a second time as one of his country's finest defenders.
"Rio is almost 33 and has obviously lost the yard of pace he had five years ago," Sir Alex Ferguson said in November. "He has to tailor his game a different way, he cannot rely on his pace anymore."
|RIO ON A ROLL
|FROM OUR LIVE COMMENTARY|
|78'||Pedersen picks out Marcus Olsson with a lovely pass and the winger does the right thing by centring the ball but Ferdinand denies Yakubu a tap-in with a brilliant tackle in the six-yard box.
| PLAYER RATING
|7||Calm and assured performance from the veteran centre-back, rarely troubled by Yakubu and produced a vital last-ditch block to deny the Nigerian.|
Ferdinand has done exactly as asked, and in the process has dramatically improved the form of regular partner Jonny Evans. With Ferdinand reading the game from a deeper position, Evans can now step up aggressively and with confidence in the knowledge that his partner will be there to provide a safety net behind him. Nothing will inhibit a defender more than the worry that every mistake he makes will be punished and Evans has had that concern lifted off of his shoulders.
As talented as they are, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones could not have provided that. United's young players flourished and featured prominently early in the season but the way Ferguson has fallen back on an experienced core of Ferdinand, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney as this season has entered its final stage has been telling. Roberto Mancini lacks the same safety net.
Ferdinand's eyes will be on another Premier League title and nothing more right now but he could be playing his way back into the England squad. Euro 2012 will, in all likelihood, be Ferdinand's last shot at a major international tournament and – regardless of who is appointed to replace Fabio Capello – the pecking order at centre-back remains up in the air.
John Terry cannot be counted as a certainty given his date in court and the potential that has to disrupt England in Poland and Ukraine. Gary Cahill is now playing for a top club but has not established himself as a first-team regular at Chelsea and has his doubters while Smalling and Jones will be attending their first major finals if selected.
Not one player on that list has played consistently as well as Ferdinand since the turn of the year. Capello was keen to filter young players into his England team, Stuart Pearce, as coach of the Under-21 side, has been the same in his interim senior role and so, one would predict, will his successor but throwing those future stars into the deep end without one or two wise heads is not only unwise, it is unfair.
Time and time again, Ferdinand has proven not only his ability on the football pitch but also his intelligence. In midfield, Scholes' calming influence has been lauded since his return from retirement but Ferdinand has not received the same credit for a similar impact.
It is now four league clean sheets in a row for Ferdinand, Evans and United and it is difficult to envisage the club's dramatic upturn in form – and as a result, perhaps, more silverware at Old Trafford – without the new partnership's improvement.
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