The dust is finally settling on the nature of United’s exit from the FA Cup at Anfield on Saturday. It was a bitter pill to swallow, seeing the Liverpool crowd that had spent the entire game booing a victim of racial abuse, celebrating a winner that came on the back of his mistake.
While, ‘monkey gestures’ skinny Spaniards and fake memorial desecration tales had dominated much of the post-match analysis one facet of United’s performance almost went unnoticed by both fans and media alike.
Rafael Da Silva, gace the sort of barnstorming bravado performance he’s often threatened to give, but without the customary, sending off/injury/reckless tackle/game altering reckless challenge that has blighted his United career so far.
Only a week after coming on as a sub only to be subbed at the Emirates, the young Brazilian gave arguably the finest performance of his United career, had more players performed at his level, there’s a strong case that it would have been the Reds of Manchester not merseyside that were celebrating victory.
United’s defence this season has suffered more injuries than most side’s entire squads. We’ve seen -deep breath now- Nemanja Vidic ruled out for practically the entire season, Rio Ferdinand have his usual calf and back problems, Jonny Evans missing crucial games at a time he’s desperately needed and Chris Smalling break a bone in his foot and also suffer some form of serious ‘cold.’
It’s only the put-upon Patrice Evra who’s been pretty injury free for the majority of the season. Due to this crisis, United have deployed Phil Jones at both centre and right back, despite it being shockingly obvious the lad’s a midfielder and a damn fine one to boot. Even Michael Carrick has played in defence, while at one point Antonio Valencia was practically a regular at right back.
Rafael’s return not just to fitness but to form could be pivotal as United enter a crucial stage of the season, still often missing many key defenders.
Chris Smalling does a great job at right back, but there’s little doubt that he’s a better asset to United when Vidic is out, in the heart of the defence.
If Rafael can make the right back slot his own and reproduce the sort of display he gave at Anfield then we could well see United finally gain a modicum of defensive consistency, both in terms of personnel and performance.
A back four of Rafael, Smalling, Evans/Rio Evra looks a solid prospect, even if we take Smalling out of the equation then Rafael Evans Rio Evra is still a pretty strong line-up.
It’s when we’re seeing Smalling at right back and maybe Jones filling in at centre back, or Tony V deployed in defence robbing us of our current most in-form attacking player that the problems start. We need the likes of Valencia and Jones in midfield, if Smalling’s fit we need him at centre back, that’s why it could be fundamental to a successful season that Rafael shows Saturday’s game wasn’t just a flash in the pan. We’ve all seen what the Da Silva twins are capable of, but too often they’re injured or a liability on the pitch.
If Rafael can keep his head- and his fitness- yet still show the same channeled aggression that makes him a top class player, then United may just surprise all the doubters and finish the season on a high.