Sir Alex Ferguson insists Nemanja Vidic is getting back to his best. The Manchester United captain was a surprise omission from Ferguson's starting line-up to face Real Madrid on Wednesday. Instead, Jonny Evans got the job of partnering Rio Ferdinand in central defence, with the Northern Irishman adding to his blossoming reputation with a solid display.
Yet it is clear Vidic still has a major role to play. His performance against Everton last weekend was a throwback to the Serbian's best days. But after virtually 16 months out of action and two major knee surgeries, Ferguson is happy for Vidic to inch his way back.
"Steadily, he's getting there," said Ferguson. "He was fantastic against Everton and I had my doubts over whether I was doing the right thing or not. But, in my mind, three days' recovery was a risk, so I stuck by what we've been doing with him.
"We've managed it for a while now," Ferguson added. "When Nemanja came back from his latest injury he'd only played about eight games in 18 months. That's a long time out and not a lot of games."
Ferguson underlined his belief that the same situation exists with his other experienced central defender. "It would have been the same with Rio," said Ferguson. "If he'd played on Sunday I would have had my doubts playing him on Wednesday."
It means Evans could now be regarded as a first-choice, having started 22 times this season, one more than Ferdinand. "Jonny is only 25 but he's emerged in the last year as a real top defender," said Ferguson. "His form has been fantastic. If you can get consistency off young players you are on the right track and Jonny has shown great consistency in the last year. Last season it wasn't until Ferdinand and Evans played regularly that we got a run going."
As the United boss also has the option of selecting Chris Smalling and Phil Jones in the same positions, he looks to be presiding over another period of transition, while at the same time competing for major honours.
It is not always easy, of course. Yet that is what Ferguson must do as United hunt down a quarter-final place. "It's not easy to rotate but it has to be done," Ferguson said. "The biggest responsibility lies with me to pick the right team. In the final part of this season we have a lot of important games. After Monday we have a league game against QPR, then Norwich before Madrid again. Then we'll use the full squad."
With Paul Scholes ruled out for another two weeks with a knee injury, Tom Cleverley and Anderson could both be included in central midfield. Other changes could include the return of Javier Hernandez, while Nani and Ashley Young provide alternatives out wide against a Reading side that has lost just one of their last seven games.
"Reading are a team who are showing plenty of fighting qualities, as you would expect given they are down near the bottom," said Ferguson.
"We'll take nothing for granted. In the FA Cup you always expect the unexpected. You just hope you're not a casualty or a shock. I will make some changes but I don't think the incentive to get to the quarter-final is lost on any of the players. There is a good spirit and they're all contributing. Whatever side I pick we're expected to qualify."