In football, a game where fortunes can change instantly, where legends are born in a moment, a month is a long time indeed. A month ago when Manchester United’s team sheet for their game against Tottenham at White Hart Lane was disclosed, eyebrows would have been raised ever so slightly at the inclusion of Phil Jones.
The youngster, who had been out for greater part of the season with injuries and hence failed to nail down a regular starting berth, was deemed to be a surprise, if not slightly risky, selection against a formidable Spurs team driven on by the magnificent Gareth Bale.
Come 5th of March, United will be up against a team much more formidable than Spurs in Real Madrid and a player much more dangerous than Bale in Cristiano Ronaldo. And the only way Jones can raise eyebrows that night when the teams are announced is by, fitness permitting, not being included.
Such has been the rise to prominence of the lad from Preston in just over a month.
With three outstanding recent performances it seems Jones is almost as important as Robin van Persie or a Wayne Rooney for United in big matches.
The versatile player was used as a defensive midfielder by Sir Alex Ferguson last season, though sporadically, and he is mainly seen as a long term replacement of club legend Rio Ferdinand for the central defensive role.
The current crop of midfielders that United possess lacks a proper midfield enforcer. At one hand there is Michael Carrick, who does the job of passing the ball in midfield relentlessly but the England international is not a midfield destroyer by any stretch of imagination.
Likewise, Tom Cleverley and Anderson are midfielders who like to get forward, linking up with the strikers. The absence of Darren Fletcher has been a big blow for the club while Paul Scholes doesn’t have the legs anymore to continue running for entire duration of the games week in, week out.
Jones didn’t disappoint. With two key interceptions and as many as five clearances against Spurs he provided a defensive shield for the bedraggled defence of United.
Likewise, against Everton, he was asked to man-mark Marouane Fellaini. The big Belgium international caused lots of trouble when United faced them in the opening match of the season. Jones using his physical strength matched him shoulder to shoulder and won most of the aerial duels.
He was slightly injured and was taken off by Ferguson just before the hour mark with the Madrid game in mind, but the damage was done already. He forced David Moyes to change his tactics and bring the Belgian back in central midfield from attacking role.
He was terrific against Real Madrid and the lion’s share of credit should go to him for maintaining such tight discipline in the defensive areas. The fact that Ronaldo was forced to shoot from outside the box most of the time gives the indication how brilliantly he managed to keep one of the world’s best player under control.
Nobody, probably not even the player himself thought that after spending major part of the season on side-lines, he will establish himself as a vital-cog in United’s triumphant wheel.
It seems at last that Jones has found his right position on the pitch, and based on his recent performances, Sir Alex can rest easy in the hope that his and the fans’ search for an able midfield destroyer in big games has come to fruition.