Jim White

Vidic blow leaves United vulnerable

In the aftermath of an emotional afternoon, in which dignity was tested to the limit and largely found to be intact, it may not seem the most urgent piece of information to emerge from Anfield on Sunday. Yet it might well turn out to have a significant effect on the destination of the Premier League title.

As Manchester United prepared to play Liverpool, news emerged that Nemanja Vidic had been obliged to withdraw from the fray after feeling a tightness in his knee during the warm up. The visiting captain had only just returned to the side following almost an entire season out with ruptured ligaments. It has since transpired that the tightness was more serious than simply a muscle strain.

Vidic had an operation on Tuesday on the same knee he damaged last season and will be consequently out of action for another eight weeks at least. He will miss three Champions league games, plus, among half a dozen Premier League encounters, fixtures against Arsenal and Chelsea.

It may seem a red herring given that United emerged with three points. And this despite not playing remotely well. But the loss of Vidic for such a length of time is a huge reversal for United. He is absolutely crucial to their well being. He is the player who gives the team solidity, confidence, backbone.

He is the sort of captain who does rather more than sort out the complimentary tickets. His name on the team sheet puts an extra spring in the step of his colleagues. Like Vincent Kompany or John Terry, Vidic is a presence far greater than the sum of his interventions, tackles and headers. In a way that the more technically gifted Rio Ferdinand is not, he is the heartbeat of his side. Indeed, it is possible to argue that his absence last year was the main reason United finished second.

And now he is out again. Worse, he is out at a time when two of his deputies are also in the treatment room. Gary Neville — who clearly knows a thing or two about players — reckons Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have the wherewithal to become the regular England centre-back pairing for the next five years. His theory would have more chance of fulfilment if the pair were actually playing.

But one thing Vidic's enforced lay-off won't have an effect on is the England team. Some commentators pointed out that with United so embarrassed in the centre-back department, there is no way their manager will allow Ferdinand to fill the gap in the national set-up opened up by the retirement of Terry. As almost the last man standing, his manager will not want that historically suspect fitness challenged by a call-up for another team. He needs Ferdinand to do the business for him and him alone.

Which might neatly fit in with conspiracy theories shared by everyone from Roberto Mancini to Jonjo Shelvey that Ferguson runs every aspect of football in this country — from the referees through rival managers to the selection of the international team — but it also somewhat overlooks Ferdinand's recent associations with the England shirt.

He was not picked for the Euros for "footballing reasons", Roy Hodgson believing that he was no longer fit or fast enough to represent his country. Or at least that was what was said publicly. Most believed it was something to do with Terry and the then still live allegations that he had racially abused Ferdinand's brother.

The trouble is, now Terry has removed himself from selection, it would take an outstanding reverse ferret for Ferdinand to be invited back into the fold. Especially as the next two England games — against San Marino in the World Cup qualifiers and a friendly with Sweden — offer the manager the chance to experiment with those who offer something rather more for the future than a player who will be 34 in November.

The fact is the manner of his non-selection for political reasons back in the summer was so fractious and unhappy, it means Ferdinand would have been able to concentrate on his club performances whether or not Vidic was fit and firing. And United will need him. Never mind Robin van Persie or Wayne Rooney. Suddenly the ageing Londoner with the dodgy back has become the club's most vital player.

Alan Hansen may have been ridiculed for his suggestion a generation ago that you win nothing with kids. But one thing is for sure: in football there are few prizes for those without decent centre-backs.