Since joining Manchester United from Leeds back in July 2002 for £30 million, Rio Ferdinand has been a mainstay in Sir Alex Ferguson’s backline, a captain, leader and talisman. The centre half has lifted five Premier League titles and a Champions League crown, and has been one of the best defenders in the Premier League throughout his time at Old Trafford. Despite this, at 32-years old, with continued injury concerns and competition from younger squad members, is it the beginning of the end for Rio?

With Nemanja Vidic an ever-present when available, a number of players will contest the remaining spot at the heart of the Premier League champions rearguard in 2011-12, with the Peckham born man no longer a guaranteed no brainer in selection. With the England international suffering from back and calf injuries in 2010-11, the former West Ham youth player may well be starting to feel his age, which will not be helped by the youthful exuberance waiting in the wings.

Whilst Rio was inconsistent last term and struggled to get a real run in the side, Chris Smalling stepped up the plate and showed just what he is made of. A few eyes were raised when the youngster was signed this time last year for a reported fee of £12 million after only 13 first team appearances for Fulham, but the England under-21 international deputised excellently for Ferdinand when called upon. Tall, physical and cool under pressure, Smalling has a lot of the assets that shot his more senior team-mate to fame ten years prior.

Smalling’s international age-grade defensive partner Phil Jones has joined the club in the summer from Blackburn, and again, despite a lack of substantial top flight experience has shown glimpses of real assurance and all the raw abilities to be a top player. Under the tutelage of the coaching staff at Carrington, the 19-year-old will be given time to mature and develop, but will be chomping at the bit to get first team action as early as possible.

Add to this an almost forgotten man at the club, Jonny Evans, who despite a frustrating 2010-11 through injury, on his day is a top drawer defender. The Northern Ireland international has seemingly been around for a lengthy period of time, but at 23-years old has the guts of his career ahead of him. An able deputy, given an extended chance in the starting XI the Belfast born stopper has the ability to overtake his more senior colleague in Sir Alex’s preferences.

United’s manager has recently stated that the club have the best young centre backs in the country. It may well be a case that the likes of Smalling, Jones and Evans have a large part to play in the defence of the Premier League title, whilst Rio Ferdinand, as noble a patron of the side as he has been, may find opportunities not as forthcoming as in previous seasons.

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