For a club like Manchester United that has made of attacking football its trademark, and whose wingers and strikers of past and present are still revered by the crowd, Old Trafford has seen its turf graced by a number of excellent defenders – some technically gifted, some not so but equally loved by the crowd for their commitment to the cause.
Surprisingly, despite the talent that has blessed United’s back four over the years, the right-back slot always seemed something of a weak link, until a certain Gary Neville stepped onto the scene, making the position his own. As honest as ever, the former United captain would be the first to admit that he was never the more talented of players, yet when asked to name an iconic right-back, most United fans would name the Sky Sports pundit without a moment of hesitation.
Future generations, though, might have to take a few more seconds before answering, for United are witnessing the emergence of a player who could go on to not only emulate Neville’s achievements but, perhaps, even better them.
Rafael’s career at Manchester United looked to have suffered a severe blow on April 7, 2010. With United 3-1 up on the night and 4-3 up on aggregate against Bayern Munich in the quarter finals of the Champions League, the Brazilian was shown his second red card for pegging back Franck Ribery.
United, playing with ten men for over 40 minutes, eventually buckled under the pressure, as Arjen Robben’s wondergoal sent the Germans through, while United and Rafael were left wondering what could have been and what, instead, had been.
“Some will query the inclusion of a headstrong 19-year-old,” said Guardian reporter Kevin McCarra who echoed the opinions of many who thought Rafael still too raw to be thrown at the deep end of an European Cup quarter final.
If United were to reach the same stage of the competition this year, the only query that would take place would be regarding Rafael’s omission from the starting XI, for this season the Brazilian defender has made the right-back position his own in the first four months of the campaign, finally fulfilling the talent at his disposal – something that United fans had hoped for since he joined the club with his twin brother Fabio.
Rafael arrived at United in January 2008 and made his first team debut six months later, with the club still coming to terms with Gary Neville’s injury that would eventually end the right back’s career a few years later. Despite Wes Brown’s splendid season and Owen Hargreaves occasionally deputising at right-back, Rafael still managed to feature in 28 games – scoring a superb goal at The Emirates in the process – but could not build on that platform and played only 16 games in the following season.
Injuries and a lack of first team opportunity hampered Rafael’s progress in the last two seasons with John O’Shea, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones all getting the nod ahead of the Brazilian who, in fairness, showed signs of a slow but steady progress when presented with a chance to flourish.
This season, with Smalling and Jones ruled out at the beginning of the campaign, Rafael has seized upon the opportunity to secure his place in the starting XI and hasn’t looked back since, having already clocked up 18 games in all competitions, with two goals – one of them at Anfield – and one assist in the Premier League.
The numbers, though, don’t tell the whole story for the Brazilian has been a rock in United’s often shaky back four in the first months of the season, adding physical presence and a hard-as-nails attitude to his game – attributes not common in a player of his size.
Michael Carrick was full of praise for the Brazilian: “Every season he has got better and better. He has played nearly every game this season and has been terrific. There is still more to come from him, he is still learning the game and is still improving, so it is great for him and he is having a good time,” while Sir Alex Ferguson hailed Rafael’s maturity: “Maturity brings that together and he’s done that over the last two years. He was quite impulsive in the past – committing himself – but he’s been fantastic.”
With Rafael quickly developing into a fan’s favourite not only for his performances but for his passionate attitude on the pitch, United can, at long last, start to believe to have found Gary Neville’s heir.
And to think that it all started with a red card.