Losing one half of a centre-back pairing that conceded just 24 league goals last season would hurt any team, but when you have an almost identical replacement it can certainly soften the blow. Rio Ferdinand has not played for Manchester United since aggravating a back injury in the 2-0 defeat at Liverpool on October 25, but in his absence, Wes Brown, a player Sir Alex Ferguson calls the best natural defender in England, has flourished.
Next to Nemanja Vidic at the heart of the United back four, the England international has helped his team concede just once in their past three league games. Ferdinand and Brown are both footballing centre-backs and are both England internationals, but, though he still has five Premier League titles and two Champions Leagues, injuries have restricted Brown from attaining the same level of acclaim as his teammate.
With no confirmed return date for Ferdinand, Brown has a chance to cement a first-team spot, and, maybe, a starting World Cup place for England. Ferguson thinks Brown is a natural defender and, at 30, is still improving. "Vidic and Brown have been fantastic in recent games. It just reminds me that when Wes Brown is fit he's the best natural defender in the country," Ferguson said ahead of today's trip to struggling Portsmouth. "I think most people recognise how good Wes is as a natural defender. You have got to pay tribute to the lad."
Signed as a trainee in July 1996, Brown's United career has suffered countless injury interruptions since making his debut against Leeds United in 1998. "He's kept coming back from the injuries he's had in his career. He's had two cruciates and a broken ankle and other injuries," the Scot said. "Last season he had a very stagnant season in terms of interruptions to his consistency, but the previous season he was our most consistent defender. Now he's fit again and looking fantastic, he gets better all the time."
Brown, who also plays at right-back, has been capped 22 times by England and is likely to be part of Fabio Capello's World Cup squad in South Africa next year. "I keep thinking he's only 22 or 23, he's got such a young approach to life. He's done well dealing with all the things he's had to deal with and still comes out fighting," Ferguson added. Second-placed United travel to Fratton Park looking to return to winning ways after Wednesday's 1-0 Champions League defeat at home to Besiktas. Victory for Ferguson's men would cut Chelsea's lead to two points for a day at least, with Carlo Ancelotti's men playing at London rivals Arsenal tomorrow.
Avram Grant was named as managed of bottom-placed Portsmouth on Thursday after the club sacked Paul Hart. Grant was due to receive his work permit for his director of football role this week and the club have revealed he will at first continue to work in this capacity. Portsmouth might not expect to get much from their clash with the English champions, however, the 54-year-old former Chelsea manager is looking forward to "the big challenge" of avoiding relegation.
He said: "I think we deserve to stay in the Premier League and that's my main concern. "I need to do a good job because the team are not in a good position. I love this club. I think the spirit of the team and the atmosphere are good, they are trying to play good football." email@example.com Portsmouth v Man Utd, KO 7pm, Showsports 1