Arriving at the FIFA World Cup™ in Germany with a debutant Serbia & Montenegro side this summer, expectations for one Nemanja Vidic were through the roof. Signed up on a big-money deal by Manchester United from Spartak Moscow just months before, he was the beating heart of a Serbian rearguard that became known as the 'Famous Four' after conceding just one goal in no less than ten qualifying matches.
Life was good for the powerful defender. The only hiccup was the fact that he would have to sit out the Serbs' first game against the Dutch due to a suspension he received due to the amount of yellow cards he picked up during the qualifying campaign.
As it turned out, Vidic (or 'Vida' as he is known) never got a second's worth of time on the pitch in Germany as he sustained a serious knee injury in training the day before the Serbs' second game, which would have been his first, against Argentina.
It was far short of "doing a Greece and challenging for the world title," as the former Red Star captain had predicted. Indeed, the Balkan side went home chastened by their first finals. Shipping ten goals and scoring only two in three consecutive losses, in all, a far cry from their high-flying qualifying campaign.
After having started slowly in the previous season at Manchester United, struggling with the adjustment to the pace of the English game, it was no guarantee that the centre-back would be an automatic choice for selection when back in the north of England for the start of the current season.
But with the grit that defines his on-field persona, he recovered quickly from his injury, and 2006/7 has so far proven a year of redemption for the Serb. Alongside Rio Ferdinand in the centre of United's defence since injury ruled out Wes Brown, Vidic has excelled.
With power and determination that speak to his rough working-class roots outside Belgrade, he has bags of strength, a devotion to all forms of tackling and an uncanny positional sense. There is no doubt that the rangy defender has undergone a massive improvement over the course of the current season in which Man United find themselves six points ahead of holders Chelsea and looking good for their first domestic title since the 2002/3 season.
"Playing under Alex Ferguson has really made me a better player," Vidic told FIFA.com. "It's not that I wasn't a good player when I was at Red Star (Belgrade) and Spartak Moscow, but I have learned so much since coming to England and I only hope to learn more."
Head of the class
In addition to his primary responsibilities of clearing out (and sometimes cleaning out) opposition danger-men, 25-year-old Vidic has the ability to power the ball into the back of the net from set pieces.
Standing at 1.88m, Vidic's leaping ability and positional sense have seen him score three goals (all headers) in the current campaign, including a crucial strike against Benfica in the UEFA Champions League group stages that saw a previously sputtering United win out 3-1 and book a place in the last 16.
"I love to get forward whenever I can," the centre-back admitted to FIFA.com while in Germany. "It's something I try to do as often as possible. I know I need to be safe at the back, but when the opportunity arises I try to get forward and grab a goal. It's a great feeling to score."
Hoping to turn recent successes on the world's biggest club stage into glory for his national team, Vidic is leading from example at the back for Serbia (who dropped Montenegro after the finals) in their current campaign to qualify for UEFA EURO 2008 in Austria and Switzerland.
With a new coach in former Spain boss Javier Clemente, Vidic's power at the back is proving ever more crucial. Serbia side are currently in second place in a tough qualifying Group A. One point behind surprise packages Finland and tied with Poland for second place, the Balkan men are showing their mettle in an attempt to make up for their humiliation under Iilja Petkovic in Germany.
"I couldn't be happier about pulling on the Serbian jersey," remarked Vidic, who now has 25 caps for the national team. "Ours is a country with a troubled past, but we have a good team now and we will do all we can to make our brothers and sisters at home smile."
"We are a strong team, a strong unit," Vidic said by way of comparison to the great Yugoslav sides of old. "For us now the collective approach is the most important thing. We still have great individuals, and now a great collective unit and hopefully we can get great results"
Vidic and Co's next test comes one the road in Kazahkstan on 24 March and four days later at home to fancied Portugal, where the centre-back will come face-to-face with his club team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo.