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Rio Ferdinand can learn from Maldini and continue to play until he's 40, says Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson

Sir Alex Ferguson expects Rio Ferdinand to follow Paolo Maldini's lead and carry on playing for another decade.

Along with Michael Carrick and Wes Brown, Ferdinand has agreed a new long-term contract which will keep him at Manchester United until 2012.

Although it might be another couple of weeks before the 29-year-old England star actually puts pen to paper, there is no likelihood of the stalling which characterised negotiations over his current deal.

With rumours of interest from Chelsea widespread, at the time Ferdinand was barracked by United fans who questioned the player's commitment.

Now there is no disputing Ferdinand's commitment to the Old Trafford cause, having skippered United regularly this season when Ryan Giggs has been rested.

And with the England defender seemingly happy and content, Ferguson has raised the possibility that, like Maldini - who has just signed a new contract with AC Milan at the ripe old age of 40 - Ferdinand could go on well past the veteran stage.

"Of course, Maldini is an exception and whether Rio wants to go on until he is 40 is another matter," reflected Ferguson.

"But with his athleticism and pace - and the fact he has no weight problems, there is no reason why he cannot play on well into his late 30s.

"His performance against Arsenal last Sunday was absolutely fantastic. Together with Gerard Pique, he took care of all the threats that can arise against Arsenal."

It is easy to see why Ferdinand's Rolls Royce style earns comparison with Maldini and why, once Giggs and Gary Neville call time on their stellar careers, he is favourite to inherit the captain's armband on a permanent basis.

Alongside Brown, who has finally ended the impasse which threatened to see him leave United in the summer, and Carrick - who has improved steadily since arriving from Tottenham in an £18million deal in 2006 - Ferdinand is part of a new side Ferguson is building for the Red Devils, which should be in place long after he vacates the hot-seat.

Not that Ferguson has any intention of quitting yet, whether United are successful in their latest Champions League quest or not.

A trip to Barcelona for Wednesday's semi-final follows tomorrow's encounter with Blackburn at Ewood Park as Ferguson's team close in on back-to-back Premier League titles.

Yet already thoughts are turning to the summer, with the Old Trafford chief intent on strengthening his squad even further.

"We have a strong squad already and I would imagine there is a good possibility of stocking up again in the summer," said Ferguson.

Certainly, it takes a special player to cope with the intensity demanded by Ferguson and his coaching staff, which is one of the reasons why the character of Manchester United players is rarely questioned.

While Liverpool, Arsenal and, to a lesser extent, Chelsea frequently come away from trips to Blackburn and Bolton complaining about opposition tactics, United just tend to get on with the job of trying to win.

"The secret is in the character, determination and attitude of your players," said Ferguson.

"Maybe, if I had a different set of players, we could be beaten before we got to the game but I don't have any problems, I am delighted with the players I am taking.

"Blackburn is not an easy place to go to but with four games to go, do we expect an easy game?"

Ferguson has no fear the enormity of a semi-final at the Nou Camp will cloud his players' minds this weekend. Neither is he scared about the prospect of failure, nor the reaction which would accompany it.

In fact, the United manager feels it is lessons learned in adversity that helps him steer an even course along a route he has travelled down so many times during his two decades at the top.

"You get accustomed to the drama of the season and there have been a lot of dramas over the years. That is why they call it experience," said Ferguson.

"I have knocked on that door hundreds of times and so have some of the players. On some occasions we have enjoyed fantastic ends to the season, on other occasions you get the taste of disappointment.

"The important thing is how you cope with the experience. The battle is not won yet but at the moment we are very relaxed."

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Paolo Maldini have an exceptional physical condition. I read somewhere the Milan medical staff said his body is like a fully fit 29 year old persons. So if Rio can play till his turning 40, I dont know but at least another five years or so he should be able to play at his best.

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maldini is exceptional, incredible for a man of his age to continue to be as impressive as any other world class centre half. but it is too early to say whether ferdinand can still compete at the highest level when he is of maldini's age.
give it another five years, then we can judge better.
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