By Sam Lee
It had been a torrid first half for Rafael, the often hot-headed right-back. Time and again he had been doubled up on and exposed and Manchester United's net was at breaking point. As the half wore on, it became an increasingly embarrassing affair for the youngster.
|SIR ALEX ON...
|"He brings us experience and he brings us that warrior spirit which we need in the heart of our defence."|
|"Rafael's maturity this season has been fantastic. He's Brazilian so he doesn't fear a thing. I trust him and have faith in him."|
|"When I think back to the time when so many critics were ready for me to move Jonny on, I hope that they're questioning their judgement."|
|DAVID DE GEA
|"He is a top keeper and his shot-stopping is second to none. He is maturing all the time and he has showed that."|
|"I think one of your players who has been playing all the time should be in the forefront to be captain and that was the case with Patrice."|
|"Absolutely brilliant. That kind of form definitely gives you a solid base. It gives us a security and enables the midfield players and front players to get on with their jobs."|
And it was not just Rafael - though he was substituted after half an hour - who was in a state that afternoon. United had fallen behind following a poor Jonny Evans clearance and then conceded twice from identical corners. In truth, any of the back five could have been hauled off and dressed down (although Sir Alex Ferguson's narrow midfield did nothing to help matters). The game was won 4-3 but it was another skin-of-the-teeth display that had left onlookers questioning if the Red Devils had the credentials to reclaim the Premier League title after such spectacular failure last time out.
And justifiably so. This was on the back of a two-week period in which Sir Alex's side had lost at Norwich City - Saturday's opponents - and Galatasaray, as well as securing unconvincing but very welcome victories against QPR and West Ham.
That game against the Hammers provided United's first clean sheet in six weeks but any hopes of a second consecutive shutout and improving defensive fortunes were well and truly dashed on that breathless afternoon in Reading. Questions remained.
But it is a different story now. Since opening up a three-point gap at the top of the Premier League with that crazy win in Berkshire, United have romped clear of Manchester City and look set to win a 20th league title.
For so long it looked as though Robin van Persie would have to carry United by himself. His goals would have to be enough to paper over the cracks caused by shaky foundations. It seemed that there would be plenty more edge-of-the-seat thrillers to sit alongside those against Fulham, Southampton, Tottenham, Stoke City, Chelsea (twice), Aston Villa, Manchester City and Newcastle.
There was a sense that things could go the same way as last season, when an over-reliance on an unsettled, youthful squad ultimately proved to be United's undoing.
Gradually, though, it all got a bit more solid. It began to look like a 'proper' title challenge. Games were won in a sensible manner, once more becoming of a team hoping to win the title.
The defence raised their game and everything else fell into place.
Nemanja Vidic is back to something near his best, Rio Ferdinand, it turns out, is not ready for the scrapheap just because he got out-sprinted by Gareth Bale, Rafael and Evans have been two of United's best players. Even Patrice Evra is having a renaissance season.
The much-maligned David de Gea, of course, has also started to come into his own. Injuries and a firstborn child have combined to keep Anders Lindegaard out of the XI and, forced or not, Sir Alex's decision to stop rotating his keepers is paying off.
Each of United's defensive cornerstones have bounced back from criticism, from doubts about their ability and longevity. De Gea was written off instantly, not good enough for United. Vidic would not recapture his best form following serious injury, Ferdinand had gone on too long, Rafael was too rash, Evra had had two poor seasons, Evans would never make it at the top level. They have all had their doubters and they have all responded.
|MANCHESTER UNITED LATEST
|11/10||Man Utd are 11/10 with BetVictor to keep a clean sheet against Norwich City
The current dominance, and the belief with which that goes hand in hand, means that Ferguson can afford to rest his first-choice central defenders for the visit of Norwich and still expect victory.
Those capable deputies who will fill in for Vidic and Ferdinand, as well as Van Persie and any number of others, will have the carrot of a starting berth on Tuesday dangled in front of them.
The extremely comfortable position in which Sir Alex finds himself is almost the exact opposite of what he experienced a year ago, when his side were unceremoniously dumped out of the Europa League by a street-smart Athletic Bilbao.
But this United are as resilient as an any other of the Sir Alex era; you only have to look at the defence to see that.
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