Saturday 14 December 2019

Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic roll back the years with vintage display

Jason Burt

This was a night, of all nights, for the impassable dream to roll back those years, banish the pains and accumulated games, in pursuit of the impossible dream.

Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand – one of the most formidable partnerships Manchester United have ever seen – were restored to the heart of the defence and asked to repel the most irresistible team in Europe.

They almost did it. But almost – probably – is not enough. With Vidic’s powerful headed goal, coming when he reached Wayne Rooney’s corner and sparking extraordinary scenes of celebration, he gave a glimpse of hope even if, inevitably, Bayern breached United.

It was a contest resembling one of those attack versus defence exercises normally confined to the training pitch. If anything, though, that helped the United veterans – combined age of 67 and both set to leave at the end of this campaign – as it meant they were reduced to the meat and drink of their trade: to put their bodies on the line and defend. And then to defend some more.

For Vidic, in particular, it was one of those evenings which brought to mind Sir Alex Ferguson’s comment when he signed the Serb from Spartak Moscow nine years ago. Vidic, he said, was a “defender who can defend”. If he sees the ball; he goes for it; there was the thrill of the 50/50 challenge that animated him.

Injuries and age have slowed Vidic but when the ball shot across the United six-yard area deep into the first-half it appeared Thomas Müller would swoop to steer Bayern Munich into the lead. Instead, Vidic pushed his body in front of the striker to clear. His name rang round Old Trafford.

Time and again he and Ferdinand were the last line of a retreating red block that was desperately close to David De Gea. The goalkeeper had no chance to push his defenders away from him as United simply could not keep possession of the ball to gain any respite.

Bayern continued to turn the screw, quick and fluid around the penalty area, it was simply reduced to basic defending for United, although that had a quality that saw their confidence grow. They knew they would not dominate so they had to retaliate by stealth through the pace of Danny Welbeck.

For all their dominance, Bayern did not create clear opportunities and relied heavily on crosses which were relatively easy for the United defence to deal with – apart from Arjen Robben forcing De Gea to a fine save and then shooting narrowly wide.

The reality is that despite the impressive reputation that the Ferdinand-Vidic partnership enjoys, it has been a diminishing force for several years.

This was only the sixth Champions League match in three years that they had started together. Not since 2008-09 have they featured alongside one another in close to half of United’s games over the course of a season.

Between 2006-09, they started 106 games together; in the next four – to the end of last season – just 57. And yet there were also five Premier League titles and three Champions League finals. Here was the improbable pursuit – mission impossible given the opposition and the state of this current United team – of attempting to reach a fourth and with it the ultimate last hurrah.

No partnership on the football field quite matters as much as central defence. They can, like Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce, even start to act and behave like an old married couple. Ferdinand and Vidic are not quite in that mould but there is a chemistry in their personalities and playing styles that has suited each other.

The biggest challenges they have faced have been injuries and the passage of time and clearly neither is the force of old. Phil Jones was by far the most athletic and dynamic member of the United back four last night as, time and again, he threw himself across the area.

Ferdinand blocked Robben’s shot; then Vidic did the same from Toni Kroos before repelling Robben, and it started to appear that the impassable dream was, astonishingly, being recreated.

But that hope was dashed as Bastian Schweinsteiger claimed the vital away goal that turned the contest back in favour of Bayern. If, despite Vidic’s goal, it had ever left them.

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