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Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson believes he currently has the best three centre-backs of his entire time at Old Trafford

Ferguson is sweating on the fitness of Jonny Evans ahead of the trip to Bolton when United will look to equal Chelsea's record of 10 successive Premier League clean sheets.

It is a run to be proud of considering Rio Ferdinand has not played since suffering a back spasm before the Boxing Day win at Stoke.

United supporters might have feared for their team without the England star but as it has turned out, Ferdinand has hardly been missed such has been the brilliance of Evans' form.

The Northern Ireland international has only just celebrated his 21st birthday but has adapted to life at the highest level with impressive calmness and maturity.

Little wonder that when Roy Keane approached his old boss at the start of the season to see if there was any chance of getting Evans - who spent the second half of the Black Cats promotion-winning campaign on Wearside, the answer was an emphatic no.

"Jonny had four years left on his contract and we told him he was not leaving," recalled Ferguson.

"I wanted him to think three or four years ahead and decide where he wanted to play, in the Manchester United first team or the Sunderland first team. It was an issue.

"I told him he would be a Manchester United first-team player within that period because his potential was so good."

It meant Ferguson was not too concerned about Ferdinand's absence, which is set to continue until the end of the month, especially as in Nemanja Vidic, United have a potential Footballer of the Year to guide him through.

"I have been at awards dinners, looked round the room at previous winners and they are nearly all forwards and we are the kind of club where attention always goes on to the star players," said Ferguson.

"I always used to say Denis Irwin would give us eight or nine out of 10 every week but he never got a mention when the praise was being given out.

"We all knew the value of him and it is very much the same with Vidic. He has been a fantastic performer for us."

Signed from Spartak Moscow on Christmas Day 2005 for £7.2million, Vidic was introduced to life at United at the same time as Patrice Evra.

Having not played for a month because of the annual Russian winter break, it was no surprise Vidic was somewhat rusty when he made his debut against Blackburn.

Like Evra, it took Vidic quite a time to adjust. Now, he is one of the most reliable defenders in Europe.

"He came at a bad time," reflected Ferguson.

"He had not played since the beginning of that December and maybe he was not ready for the cut and thrust of the Premier League.

"I know Patrice thought the world had fallen in after he had made his debut but you see him now. It is the same with Nemanja."

"With Jonny, Nemanja and Rio I have three centre-backs who are as good as I have ever had."

Evans and striker Carlos Tevez face 10am fitness tests after limping through Wednesday's win over Wigan.

Nineteen-year-old academy graduate James Chester has been added to Ferguson's squad, with United knowing victory will take them to the Premier League summit for the first time this season.

Normally, Ferguson just regards this as the time his team start moving forward ahead of their spring title drive.

This time, he feels the next few weeks hold the key to their chances of a championship hat-trick.

"This period is more important than April definitely, particularly because our top players are out," said the Scot.

"If we get through this, we know that by the Everton game on February 2, Rio and Wes Brown will be back, with Evra and Rooney available the following week.

"Then you are talking about us approaching the middle of February with a full complement of players again.

"Just now we have to pick the right teams and hope injuries do not extend to a point where it starts to affect results."
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