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Evans grabs his chance to become United's key figure

After a horror show at West Ham last season, which led to Jonny Evans being dropped for six weeks, Alex Ferguson now rates the 24-year-old as "arguably the best defender in the country".

In this reversal of fortune, students of Manchester United may recognise classic Fergusonian man-management of a younger player. With peers such as Vincent Kompany, Joleon Lescott, Thomas Vermaelen, John Terry, Kyle Walker and Benoit Assou-Ekotto, it is some claim that Evans could be the leader of this pack.

Playing alongside the resurgent Rio Ferdinand, the Northern Irishman may not even be the best defender in his own team. But the Evans performance graph has risen since his nightmare at Upton Park two Novembers ago. On a rain-lashed night in east London Evans was culpable for two of the goals as United were knocked out of the Carling Cup 4-0.

Ferguson, furious, had taken Evans off after 72 minutes and he next trusted him in a red shirt for the 1-0 FA Cup third-round win over Liverpool the following January. A sending-off followed against Bolton in mid-March as Evans finished his difficult season with only 13 league appearances, the fewest of his four-year professional career.

Now, though, following the ruptured cruciate ligament that finished Nemanja Vidic's season in December, Evans is up to 27 outings (26 starts) -- already his highest return by nine. "His form has been absolutely consistent over the past few months since he became a regular," says Ferguson. "Jonny Evans has always had fantastic ability, even as a kid. He was very talented as a boy when he came over here from Ireland at 12 years of age. We were never quite sure if he was going to be a midfield player or a centre-back -- he was exceptionally talented but gangly with physical issues growing up. We had him out on loan with Antwerp and Sunderland and now we are seeing the value of nurturing him. With his height and pace and ability on the ball, he is really outstanding."

Evans's ease in playing further up the park and his ball-playing skills are reflected in a 90 per cent pass completion rate in the league.

"I think his form is down to playing regularly and Rio has helped him too. It has been a good combination for us. It's been difficult for [Chris] Smalling and [Phil] Jones at the moment because of their form, because they are due to be our centre-backs in the future.

"I don't know what the fans thought but there were never any doubts in my mind about Evans. He had a period of a few injuries but he has toughened up now, he's done a lot of work in the gymnasium and he's 24 years of age. He's been a top player for us this year. There is no doubt he has been helped playing alongside the experience of Rio and he is now arguably the best defender in the country.

"I must admit my heart sank a little when I learned just how long Nemanja Vidic was going to be out. But Rio responded brilliantly, despite his back problem, and has now struck up a fine partnership with Evans. They have been rock solid."

Despite the stellar form of Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes and Ferdinand, Evans is in the running to be United's player of the season, Ferguson believes.

"Don't remind me about West Ham. It has been difficult since then in terms of dealing with the mental side of things," says Evans, reflecting on his return to the team for the Liverpool game 15 months ago.

"I have always had confidence in my own ability and great support from my family and the manager. I just had to step back and think about the things I needed to do to get back to getting the basic stuff right."

Mission accomplished and more. Now he speaks with the clout of an established figure when assessing United's charge at a 20th league title that continues this afternoon when Everton visit Old Trafford.

"They have hit a great patch of form in the second half of the season," he says. "They are above Liverpool, so I am sure they will want to finish above them in the league after losing to them in the FA Cup semi-final. It is going to be another tough game. We will have to be patient because they do defend quite well."

And heading United's own rearguard will be Evans.


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