By Liam Twomey
In May of last year, as he celebrated both his fourth Premier League title in five-and-a-half seasons with Manchester United and his second Player of the Season award, Nemanja Vidic may well have found it hard to believe he would ever be considered dispensable at Old Trafford.
Awarded the club captaincy at the start of that campaign, the uncompromising Serb responded by blossoming into arguably the finest centre-back in the world, marshalling a United defence which kept 15 clean sheets on its march to a record 19th league title and conceded just four goals in 12 Champions League matches in reaching a third final in four seasons.
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But football, both on and off the field, is a game of moments, and a matter of months can play witness to a lifetime of change. During United’s ill-fated Champions League clash with Basel last December, their captain picked up a knee injury which has halted his career and may yet define what is left of it.
Having fought in vain to preserve Owen Hargreaves’ top-level capability for over three years, the medical staff at Carrington are acutely aware of the potentially devastating and debilitating effects of an anterior cruciate ligament rupture. Michael Owen and Michael Essien provide further proof that many victims emerge from the long and arduous rehabilitation process mere shadows of what they once were.
It is, of course, far too early to know whether Vidic will suffer a similar fate, but his latest setback – a meniscus knee operation which will keep him out until mid-November at the least – is undeniably cause for concern. Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to transfer the club captaincy to the Serb two years ago because of fears over Rio Ferdinand’s worrying injury record now carries a bitter irony.
Consequently, while many United fans will be disappointed to learn that, as exclusively revealed by Goal.com on Sunday, their club are willing to consider a monster offer for their defensive talisman from free-spending Russians Anzhi Makhachkala in January, they should not be surprised.
While no club wants to endure high-profile departures in the middle of the season, Vidic’s sale may not be the disaster it might have been 18 months ago.
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For if Ferdinand’s prolonged period of good health proves more than simply defiance of the laws of probability and Jonny Evans builds on tentative recent signs he is capable of maturing into a centre-back of genuine substance, United will maintain a solid base. In Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, they also possess two of Europe’s most talented young defenders.
Moreover, if the Serb leaves for the £33 million that Anzhi are reportedly willing to splash out, United will carry a strong hand into the post-Financial Fair Play transfer market. For a club which barely scratches the surface of its yearly revenues with outlay on players, such a significant sum might provide Sir Alex Ferguson with a crucial edge over his less economical domestic rivals.
Ferguson has always been quick to crush speculation linking Vidic with a move away from Old Trafford, bristling at the mere suggestion he would allow his captain to be prised from his grasp. But the wily Scot knows better than most that there is no room for emotion in the business of running a successful football club. In December 2008 he claimed he would refuse to sell Real Madrid a virus. Six months later he sold them Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ultimately, if a January offer is forthcoming, the final decision will rest with the player himself. Vidic will have to weigh up whether untold riches, an intriguing footballing ‘project’ and a fresh challenge is worth the upheaval of moving his wife and three sons over 1500 miles to a much harsher climate and drastically different culture.
After two seasons spent with Spartak before his move to Manchester, Moscow - where Anzhi are based in between matches - is no great unknown, but whether United’s captain desires a return only he can say.
If he does, however, the New Year could herald a momentous parting of the ways.
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