Patrice Evra feeling the heat after below par performances
United left-back only sure of place because nobody is challenging for it
When all's said and done, Patrice Evra is the one with the backbone in the Manchester United team.
On those nights when the players slink through the post-match mixed zone, studiously evading questions from all but the club's own media channel, he'll generally be there, answering up for the failings in the those interviews which can be more spiky.
But that doesn't mean that Evra's work in the last four days hasn't blown a major hole in the logic of Alex Ferguson's summer transfer business.
Robin van Persie's arrival was a huge statement of intent on United's part, but was another striker really more important to United than a world-class left back?
The question hangs there, uncomfortably, even after 90 minutes and a 2-1 win in Cluj, which showed what damage that the partnership of Van Persie and Wayne Rooney will do this season.
A galaxy of striking options -- so many that Ferguson will have a job keeping Danny Welbeck, Shinji Kagawa and Javier Hernandez gainfully employed -- looks like a luxury in the week when Evra's poor positioning left his central defenders exposed to the jet heels of Tottenham Hotspur's Gareth Bale and when Cluj's Senegalese winger Modou Sougou left him grasping at thin air on a touchline in north-west Romania.
This is a very pale imitation of the left-back who once stood among the world's best. Now, his position is only secure at United because there is no one challenging for it.
A sense that Ferguson was looking for a replacement for him during the summer has been hard to pin down. The rumour that Everton's Leighton Baines was being pursued emanated from too many places to be entirely baseless, though time and again the same message came out of Everton and from the player's representatives: that no approach had been made.
Southampton's Nathaniel Clyne has said that the club were interested in him, but he opted to leave Crystal Palace for St Mary's, believing that chances would be more limited at United. With Fabio da Silva loaned to QPR and not yet at the United level, that leaves Alex Buttner, signed for £4m from Vitesse Arnhem as back-up for Evra and not generally seen as anything more.
It was the strike force which preoccupied Ferguson most this summer. The goal difference which took the title away to City last season haunts a manager who has subsequently talked perhaps half a dozen times in the past few months about the need for more goals this season. Yet the 89 his side scored in the Premier League last season was their highest total since the rampant campaign of 1999/2000, when they scored 97 and won the league by 18 points.
They lost the title because of the 4-4 draw at Everton on April 22, a game in which Evra, in his quieter moments, will have questioned how he allowed the Everton right-back Tony Hibbert so much space to cross from the right for the visitors' first and second goals.
It might not be mere sentimentalism to feel that those kinds of calamities don't seem to hurt United's players in quite the way they used to.
The story Gary Neville tells of the devastation he felt at his calamitous performance against Vasco da Gama in the 2000 World Club Cup -- it was the only time he sought help from a sports psychologist -- seems a long way from the current sense that a little more time as a unit will make it all click.
Evra was surprised to be asked about his form after the away game at Liverpool, though the buttoned-up world of Premier League football doesn't create much space for candour.
United have never truly replaced Neville, either. The hope must be that Chris Smalling can continue to grow in that position when he returns.
Evra certainly doesn't try to hide the fact that United's habit of falling behind in games must be eradicated on Sunday at Newcastle United. "A disaster," is how he recalls last season's 3-0 loss there, when Phil Jones suffered.
Evra also cautioned against football forgetting Rooney's brilliance, just because of the novelty of Van Persie.
"When something new arrives and a new player comes then everyone is talking about that," he said. "But the players who were already at the club have to show they will never die."
Where Evra is concerned, that seems like an especially hard challenge. (© Independent News Service)