While most of us had to wait until the 25th to open any gifts that came our way last month, Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United were lucky enough to get their biggest Christmas present a good ten days early. The return of their club captain and outstanding defender in Nemanja Vidic brought both a fresh wave of optimism and a timely boost to a United defense that has sought to ship goals for fun in recent months.

But as with all gifts, the New Year period usually gives us a chance to take stock of what we’ve been lucky enough to receive over the festive period. Some gifts, like the eight surplus pairs of socks a doting Aunt may have brought you, you won’t necessary need. Others, such as the more perishable items, will already be long gone. And then you have the gifts that simply don’t always seem to work properly upon operation.

Quite whether Nemanja Vidic is going to have to be sent back to the manufacturer for repair, it is of course far too early to tell. But this is one Christmas gift that Fergie simply cannot afford to ignore should it start playing up as we progress through the Premier League season.

While the dodgy Christmas gift metaphor is perhaps verging on a little uncouth for a defender as imperious as Vidic, given the big Serb’s recent injury hell, it feels difficult to buy into some of the unnerving optimism that some United fans have been indulging in since his return in the 3-1 over Sunderland last month.

After replacing Rio Ferdinand in the second half of the victory over Martin O’Neill’s men, Vidic made what was only his sixth appearance of the season in all competitions. After seeing his 2011-12 season decimated by a ruptured cruciate knee ligament picked up in the Champions League group stages, a hasty comeback this term saw Vidic require surgery on the meniscus in the same right knee. He’d not been seen since September 19th.

Yet following his re-entry into the team, there is a school of thought that those still clamoring for a new centre-back are searching for a problem that now no longer exists. The need for a much-feted central midfielder continues to be wheeled out with more conviction. Of course, Fergie’s been eager to ease Vidic back in the team, but surely that’s no more than simple common sense?

While that may be true, comments from the man himself suggest that he’s far from out of the woods just yet. Again, it would be dangerous to speculate at the potential ramifications of Vidic’s injury, but there are no guarantees the way we’re seeing him currently managed will necessarily be consigned to the short term.

Speaking to club’s official website, Vidic confirmed that following his previous doomed comeback attempt, he must be more careful the second time around. But his words sounded a little more out of hope, than expectation.

“The doctor is managing the games [I play],” Vidic told manutd.com.

“Over the first two or three months I have to really look at the games I can play because sometimes I might have a reaction.

“This is a process I have to go through. I am glad I have managed to play after three months. It is nice to be on the pitch and playing games. Hopefully I can.”

While you hardly need a PhD in Sports Science to allude to the fact Vidic needs to be carefully managed back into the swing of things at Manchester United, it’s the longer-term prospects of the player that seem a little more hazy to predict. There’s every chance that Nemanja Vidic can go on to make a full recovery from his injury, as the likes of Ruud van Nistlerooy, Michael Owen and Xavi have from similar cruciate ligament injuries.  But at 31, Vidic’s body isn’t in its mid-twenties and at its full powers of recover anymore.

Because regardless of the implications his injury might have had on his physical ability, it’s his ability to get on the field in the first place which could be of more pressing concern.

Manchester United need a settled back four. For all their heroics up the other end of the pitch, the continuous haemorrhaging of goals at their own end cannot continue and despite the wealth of talent they have at their disposal defensively, it counts for very little if they can’t get it on the pitch at the same time.

Regardless of the impact his knee has on his ability to perform week in, week out for Fergie’s side, Vidic isn’t going anywhere. As one of the Europe’s finest defenders, he is always going to have a part to play, and having a slightly off-key Vidic for 20 games a season is better than what most other defenders can offer over the course of an entire term.

Although if come the end of this term Vidic is having issues in playing week in, week out, Ferguson cannot hesitate to look to bring in a world class centre-half during the summer. It sounds like scaremongering and again, it’s speculating upon something that is yet to happen. But with Rio Ferdinand now 34 and Phil Jones and Chris Smalling perhaps still some way off taking the mantle, they can’t afford to have the rock of their defence develop a Ledley Kind like yo-yoing presence in and out of the side.

All at Old Trafford will be crossing their fingers that Vidic goes on to escape unscathed from his injury hell. But the club cannot sustainably fight for glory both domestically and in Europe long-term without a settled and stable defensive unit. The progress of Nemanja Vidic in the next six months will go a along way to determining what that back four will look like next season.

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