United on the brink of history
As the Manchester United players stepped off the plane, looking tired and bleary eyed after returning home from Japan with the FIFA Club World Cup trophy, they could hardly have believed what they would go on to achieve. Since the Red Devils suffered a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Arsenal on 8 November 2008, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have gone on a run of 14 games and 1,302 minutes without conceding a single Premier League goal.
The last time United’s defence was breached by Samir Nasri, USA had a different president, Hull were fourth in the table and the world was yet to feel the full effect of the global credit crunch. But despite all these changes, there has been one constant - the man between the posts. At 38, Dutchman Edwin Van der Sar is now just 89 minutes away from eclipsing the European record for consecutive clean sheets, set by FC Bruges stopper Dany Verlinden in 1990.
Standing in the way of van der Sar and United’s record breaking achievement are the rejuvenated Blackburn Rovers, with only one defeat in their last 11 games under new manager Sam Allardyce. However, despite Rovers' impressive recent run they still sit third from bottom, deep in the relegation dog-fight and will be hoping that either Norwegian winger Morten Gamst Pedersen, or strikers Benni McCarthy and Roque Santa Cruz can upset the United rearguard.
Sir Alex Ferguson has produced several great sides during his 23 years in charge at Old Trafford and believes that his goalkeeper and back four are the best he has seen. “I see the clean sheets simply as a tremendous reflection on the quality of Edwin van der Sar’s goalkeeping, and the excellence of the men at the back. They have been out of this world, and I was delighted when they chalked up 14 consecutive league games without conceding a goal to set a British record, and they have a great chance of achieving a world record.”
The run of shut-outs that the world champions have gone on is made even more remarkable when you consider that their linchpin, England regular Rio Ferdinand, has missed ten of those games with a back injury. A lot of the credit has to be awarded to Nemanja Vidic, who has been touted as a possible Player of the Year in England. Many people raised a few eyebrows when the relative unknown was signed from Spartak Moscow for £7 million in January 2006, but the centre-back has been an outstanding performer since his arrival, receiving rave reviews for his aggressive, no-nonsense style and his ability to score vital goals, none more so than the last minute winner against Sunderland this season.
The Red Devils seem to be getting better and better as each game passes and Ferguson believes the the team can achieve even more success. "We may not win every game between now and May, but that will be our aim. There is also a mental toughness in the team these days that will stand us in good stead as the pressure builds. This group of players has been together for a couple of seasons, and they have developed strong bonds. This has fostered the type of stability needed for success, and I think we are going to take some beating.”