It’s hardly as if Rafael’s season at Manchester United needed much in the way of a cherry on the cake, but following his outrageous strike against Queens Park Rangers during the weekend, the young Brazilian may already have his own personal memento of a title-winning season.
Of course, even considering the Red Devil’s 12-point lead at the top of the Premier League table, it’s still verging on the naïve to crown Sir Alex Ferguson’s team as league champions with 11 games still to play. But one thing that we can already safely lay claim to, is the outstanding season that Rafael’s contributed to their title efforts.
Because if there was any question marks lingering over the long-term stability of Manchester United’s right-back berth, then the 22-year-old seems to have answered them with aplomb. Spectacular 25-year volleys aside, the former Fluminense youth product has been in superb form for his side season, offering both a consistently steady influence defensively as well as an energetic and penetrative presence up the other end of the pitch.
His best season yet at Old Trafford? Undoubtedly so, or at least the man himself seems to think so anyway.
“I think so,” Rafael replied, when asked by MUTV if this is his finest season.
“I have played many games very consistently so it is probably my best season here.
“Of course, I think there are some games where I feel I could have done more – I should have done this or should have done that better. I definitely still want to improve.”
At still only 22, United fans will be delighted to hear their young right-back ooze such maturity and it’s certainly in keeping with the calmer presence that we’ve seen on the field of play this season.
It’s hardly as if Brazilians lack much in the way of charisma and a penchant for the flamboyant, but ever since Rafael made his first fleeting appearances as an 18-year-old in 2008, it was clear that this South American had something a little bit extra. The youngster looked to be a ball of energy and most importantly, not one to shy away from a tackle. He’s made of tough stuff, but often that exuberance and natural aggression has been perhaps a little too prevalent in his all round game.
Indeed, for all the strides that he’s made this season, that willingness to make his presence felt in games still has a tendency to spill into over eagerness and you need look no further than the recent 1-1 draw with Real Madrid, to see that Rafael’s still some way off the finished article.
While there’s absolutely no shame in having an off day against one of the best teams in the world, Rafael still seemed like such a raw product and perhaps given his age, supporters would do well to appreciate there’s still a lot of potential yet to be realised.
But again, encouragingly for fans, Rafael is well aware that he needs to slowly manage that natural enthusiasm. Speaking about the game at the Santiago Bernabeu, he told MUTV:
“I think because it was a big game [against Real], I expected a lot more of myself and I thought I had to win every ball. I think I came out for the first half thinking like that. I thought, ‘I need to win this ball’ and, if I did something wrong, then I really had to win the next ball.”
Explaining that the calming words of Sir Alex Ferguson helped him regain his composure for the second half, it’s perhaps clear that the maturing process for the Brazilian’s mentality is just as important as what he’s doing with his feet. But with 32 appearances to his name in all competitions for Manchester United so far this season, make no mistake about it, Rafael is now a vital first-team component within this side.
And for all the occasional hotheaded moments and slightly rash tackles that he has a tendency to indulge in, despite his age, there aren’t many better within his position in this league. The likes of Manchester City’s Pablo Zabaleta and Liverpool’s Glen Johnson are amongst the Premier League’s outstanding candidates at right-back this season, but Rafael isn’t far behind at all. And at only 22, it might not be long before he’s the pick of the bunch, either.
Expectation must be managed around Rafael’s future progress but for as magnificent as he’s been at Manchester United this season, the nature of the club will always demand improvement and next season, supporters are going to be looking for him to step up a gear. There’s no reason to think that he’s not capable of doing so, but for all the potential he still retains, it counts for nothing if left unfulfilled.
Yet for all the potential Rafael bestows, most importantly, it’s the performances he’s been churning out in the present, rather than what he might do in the future, that really deserve the plaudits.
If – or perhaps, when – Manchester United lift the Premier League title, although the likes of Robin van Persie and Michael Carrick are sure to be the frontrunners for their player of the year, Rafael shouldn’t be too far behind. This season has been his best yet in a United shirt. Whether it serves to be his defining one, only time will tell.