Saturday, January 31, 2009

Vidic the beating heart; Van der Sar the face

Manchester United defeated Everton 1-0 Saturday further en route on their bar-thumping, record-setting 12-match scoreless streak.

Edwin Van der Sar broke the English Football League record for consecutive shutout minutes as the Reds downed the Blues in a well-referred, good-natured affair at Old Trafford.

However, Van der Sar is not the most influential in United's recent defensive re-branding.

The rearguard's strength traces back to both Vidic and Patty Evra's arrival in January 2006.

All five members of the United backline, including Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville, made the 2007 PFA Team of the Year with United claiming nine members of the starting 11 (10 if you include Dimitar Berbatov, who made the team with Tottenham) as they won the Premier League for the first time in three years.

In 2007-2008, all four of United's defenders—with Wesley Brown instead of Neville at right-back—had great campaigns, as well, with each member of the back line starting over 40 games for United and allowing just 15 goals in the top flight. This earned both Vidic and Ferdinand places in the 2007-2008 PFA Team of the Year, Evra somehow second-fiddle to Arsenal's Gael Clichy.

United also allowed merely six goals in 13 games en route to their 1-1 victory over Chelsea in the UEFA Champion's League final.

Van der Sar, while undoubtedly providing stability much pined-after in goal for Manchester United during the swan song of his career, is featured for his performance during the penalty shoot-out last season. He saved one in six penalties. John Terry had more impact than did Van der Sar, infamously shooting his off-target, the crucial turning-point.

And yet, the Dutchman, revered for an inevitably penalty save against Nicholas Anelka in that final, receives similar acclaim this season as United's defense again is the foundation for their assault on European football.

Without Ronaldo carrying the team as often as he did during his Balloon d'Or campaign last term, the strength of United's defense is made more prominent without the winger's dominance claiming the headlines.

But, in an era where defensive players, whether goalkeepers or defenders, receive much less credit for their class than those with more flare, perhaps goalkeepers rank slightly above defenders on the totem pole.

Van der Sar has only had to make 19 saves during the scoreless run. He was untested completely against Stoke City, Sunderland, and Middlesbrough, while Chelsea only found a shot on goal once. Out of 50 shots on target this season, the two-time European Cup winner has made just 41 saves and conceded nine.

In all of last year he made 130 saves and conceded 11.

But, despite being largely untested since United's defeat at Arsenal Nov. 8, Van der Sar is again claiming headlines while the stoic eastern-European Nemanja Vidic is the true hero for United this season.

Vidic is the only member of the back-line, other than Van der Sar, to start and finish every game during the record-breaking streak since United's loss at Arsenal. Rio Ferdinand missed five games with an injury and Patty Evra was partially suspended and now injured during the streak.

Vidic is perhaps the ultimate defender. His uniform is made of dirt. He flies in wherever he is needed, head-first if necessary, and simply has no peers physically. No forward in Europe, among United's travels during the last three years with Vidic, can claim to have come out ahead with the monster at 90 minutes.

Vidic has a great leap, is very flexible, and can clear with both feet. He is wiry, strong, and very intelligence. He may not be fast, but he is not slow. His touch is not heavy. Rio Ferdinand can claim to be the silkier of the two, but Vidic doesn't want completely. Especially this season, Vidic has shown undeniable improvement with his footwork, passing, and turning with the ball.

He is also powering forward to score vital goals, netting against Chelsea this season and scoring in the 90th minute against Sunderland during a tenuous period just prior to the FIFA Club World Cup.

Though being short-listed for the 2008 Ballon d'Or was an accomplishment, surely greater ones await.

Fabio Cannovaro won FIFA World Player of the Year in 2006 based almost solely on his achievements during the World Cup. According to reports, he was not imperious with Juventus during the second half of their 2005-2006 campaign, and started slowly at Real Madrid next season when Juventus were relegated to Serie B.

Though, his victory was a rare coup for defenders against a media and viewing society that gives more natural weight to players with the most attractive, attacking flare.

Awards and accolades are easy to associate with statistics: 42 goals is warranting, as is one World Cup.

With tangible team success Vidic enjoyed last season, coupled with the record-breaking scoreless run for United, with more silverware on the horizon, the big Serbian monster is announcing his presence, with authority, to all, not just the nuanced, as the world's best defender on modern form.

Yes, there is a reason Van der Sar is so untroubled these days; his name is Nemanja Vidic.

Take notice.

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