It was United’s packed midfield that ably protected Ferdinand. Ferguson would almost certainly have lined up with the same system – the tidy Michael Carrick teamed with the industrious Ryan Giggs in midfield and terrier-like Wayne Rooney in attack – regardless of who partnered Nemanja Vidic in defence. Having Carrick and Giggs in midfield ensured United were calm in possession and resolute all over the pitch, easing the pressure on Vidic and Ferdinand and forcing Chelsea to break down wave after wave of red-shirted tenacity before getting at the heart of defence.
As is often the case in United’s European displays it was a team effort, an unglamorous but effective performance that, in this case, had the added benefit of easing Ferdinand back into action slowly. When the game drifted to the latter stages and United dropped deeper as Chelsea pushed forward, Ferdinand was sufficiently adapted to aide makeshift right-back Antonio Valencia and keep a clean sheet.
Part of what gave Ferdinand an easier-than-expected return was the lack of width on display from Chelsea, particularly on the right flank. Didier Drogba, excellent on the night, and the less-than-excellent Fernando Torres took turns in drifting wide, leaving the two United centre-backs to deal with the one remaining striker, while Patrice Evra and one of United’s hard-working midfielders dealt with the roaming forward. Yuri Zhirkov’s presence on the Chelsea left gave the home side a dose of natural width that could not be replicated by Jose Bosingwa’s runs from deep or Ramires’ nominal station slightly to the right of midfield.
Sacrificing one of the trio of central midfielders in his lop-sided 4-4-2 might have given Carlo Ancelotti more success and allowed his two-pronged attack to spend more time troubling a centre-back pair made up of Ferdinand, a player making his first appearance in months and Vidic, sent off on his last trip to Stamford Bridge. Chelsea had a handful of chances – and should have had a penalty late on against Evra – but never unsettled Ferdinand as they should have.
What Ferdinand did have to do he did with his customary elegance, perhaps apart from the boot to the face he gave Florent Malouda, but also a creeping hesitancy not normally seen in his game – underscored by the high kick on the French winger – although the hint of caution was understandable considering the layoff he has endured. Ferdinand’s return was a boost for United ahead of this game and during it but his major contribution will be in the forthcoming fixtures, when the former England captain’s experience of four Premier League wins, a Champions League victory and 80 international caps will be vital in steering United to a possible 19th title, and perhaps another Champions League triumph.