Allen Hamilton

Back in August, it would have seemed implausible that Manchester United could endure a scoring slump from Wayne Rooney – one goal in open play this season – and a serious injury to Antonio Valencia yet still sit in pole position heading into the final four months of the Premier League title race.

But Sir Alex Ferguson’s men are not only leading the pack, they are also still unbeaten after 21 league games. Ferguson himself would admit United are yet to hit top gear but, in a season where the gap between the top four and the rest of the teams is smaller than ever, steady has been good enough.

Praise has not come in waves, however, as emphasised by some quarters labelling United the "Unconvincibles", a slur as a comparison to Arsenal’s breathtaking "Invincibles" of 2003/04. But while United have lacked some of the cutting edge in the final third that was once their trademark, at the other end they have been nothing short of immense.

After a shaky start to the season – in which United squandered leads at Fulham and, even more improbably, Everton – the Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand partnership has been restored and it looks as resolute as ever.

While Arsenal rue the absence of Thomas Vermaelen and Chelsea look back on the decision to sell Ricardo Carvalho to Real Madrid, the Old Trafford outfit are building another title charge on a solid back four.

Patrice Evra and Rafael Da Silva have been consistent performers at full-back while Edwin van der Sar refuses to give any hint that his 41st birthday is approaching. But it is the Ferdinand-Vidic pairing that makes United favourites to grab a 19th league title.


And it is the Serb, in particular, who has furthered his case for being considered the equal of any defender in Europe. It is easy to forget that Vidic seemed destined for Real Madrid last summer, but was persuaded to sign a new contract and given the captaincy. Signed for £7M back in 2006, he must be ranked among Ferguson’s top two or three signings of the past 25 years. In today’s market, Vidic might well command £30M.

The Serb even stood out among a string of fine defensive displays in the goalless draw with Tottenham Hotspur recently. He dominated in the air against Peter Crouch and was first to every ball that Harry Redknapp’s impressive side threw into the United box. But Vidic’s game is far more than winning headers, as he showed with a couple of vital blocks and an excellent tackle on Rafael van der Vaart as the Dutchman turned to shoot.

Given the nature of football, it is inevitable that Rooney’s struggles have drawn more attention than United’s defensive prowess. The England striker still looks short of last season’s form, though his team-mates continue to bail him out with grit and resilience. Vidic was United’s best player at White Hart Lane, but Ferdinand and Darren Fletcher were not far behind.

So, for all the scepticism over United’s credentials, the league table tells its own story. Ferguson’s side have not been outstanding, but they have stood their ground to grind out points where their rivals have faltered. United’s goal difference of +24 is the league’s best and most of the credit should go to a defence that has conceded just 19 goals. Of that 19, five came against Fulham and Everton when United were waiting for Ferdinand to return from injury.

In fact, over the last seven games Vidic and company have conceded just three goals as their title bid has gathered steam, which is a promising sign for the home stretch. The Serb’s towering performances have put him firmly alongside Carlos Tevez and Gareth Bale in the Player of the Year discussion.

Ferguson, of course, will be taking nothing for granted at this stage and the tests will keep coming in the months ahead. From a trip to Blackpool to the Manchester derby to the return of the Champions League, teams will be lining up to derail United. Now would be a good time for Rooney, Nani and Dimitar Berbatov to hit top form.

But history across a string of team sports has proved that while attackers win games, defences win championships. With that in mind, United remain the favourites to lift the trophy in one of the most unpredictable seasons in Premier League history.