12 February ~ After Fernando Torres's tepid performance for Chelsea last weekend, the papers looked back at some similarly shaky starts to put his poor debut into context. Chris Sutton's Chelsea career never quite recovered from the embarrassment of missing two one-on-ones in his debut at Stamford Bridge. No discussion of disastrous debuts is complete without reference to Jonathan Woodgate's first game for Real Madrid. After spending a year on the sidelines with various injuries, he managed to score an own goal and get himself sent off in his first game for his new club. "It wasn't the best start in the world," said a phlegmatic Woodgate.
Torres, no doubt, will be fine. His performance wasn't even the worst debut this year. That honour goes to Wayne Bridge – the Manchester City defender, whose loan is reportedly costing West Ham £90,000 a week, managed to gift Arsenal all three of their goals at Upton Park last month. Torres can also take heart from the case of Patrice Evra, another name on the list of disastrous debutants. The France defender and former Champions League finalist was left with twisted blood and spilled guts in the Manchester derby back in January 2006. Evra bemoaned the early scheduling of the match. Apparently his body was unable to hold onto a bowl of pasta served at 9am. He also failed to hold onto Darius Vassell, who joined Trevor Sinclair and Robbie Fowler on a scoresheet. He was replaced by Alan Smith at half-time.
How things change. Over the past five years Evra has developed into United's most consistent player. His defending has improved remarkably and his attacking instincts have prolonged Ryan Giggs's career. Evra can now look back on that derby defeat with a smile: “I remember that game very, very well. At one point the ball went out from a corner and I remember thinking, Pat, what are you doing here? The game was so quick, everyone was so strong and the whole thing was just too difficult. I really wanted to play for this club so I just decided to work even harder and thankfully it has worked.”
The only player who has rivalled Evra's consistency for United in the past few years also had a slow start at the club. Nemanja Vidic, who joined the club with Evra in that January transfer window, also struggled to adapt to English football. He didn't play in the humiliating defeat to City but remembers it well: "We speak about it quite often. Neither of us started well and we used to say we wanted to leave, but we can laugh about it now.”
If United are to beat City today they will do so by relying heavily on their defence. Along with Rio Ferdinand and a maturing Rafael da Silva, Evra and Vidic have somehow lifted a very mundane team to within touching distance of a record 19th League title. This current United team is altogether more prosaic than the one that made it to consecutive Champions League finals a few years ago. Cristiano Ronaldo, who was sent off in the defeat at Eastlands five years ago, has taken his goals to Madrid (24 in 22 games so far this season). And Carlos Tevez, who was welcomed to City with open arms, has surely become the region's best player.
If United's squad has been restructured in the past five years, the whole dynamic of City as a club has been blown apart. Five years ago it would have been difficult to believe that the only World Cup-winners playing in Manchester in 2011 would be at City. But despite blowing £400 million on players, they remain an outside bet to win today's derby. This United squad is as poor as any in recent memory, but having the best defenders in the country has its merits. That being said, they still have two encounters with Fernando Torres to look forward to before any prizes are handed out. Paul Campbell