Nemanja Vidic has admitted he is surprised Manchester United are top of the Premier League, citing the "strange" season rather than United's form for their marginal lead in the title race.
United welcome Stoke to Old Trafford on Tuesday night level with Manchester City on 41 points but with two games in hand on their cross-town rivals, a position Vidic is not taking for granted. United are still unbeaten this season but they have drawn eight matches, a record Vidic is not particularly proud of.
"This season is very strange,'' he said. "If you had told me five weeks ago that Chelsea would be in the position they are now, I wouldn't have believed it. Everyone thought they were the strongest team and that they would win the title. But then they didn't win for six games. And look how many points we have lost this season. If someone had told me this would happen, I would have said we could not win the league. But here we are top and still unbeaten.''
Stoke's unique physical and aerial threat will test the United defence but Vidic has hailed the form of partner Rio Ferdinand despite the England captain giving away a penalty that nearly proved costly against West Brom on Saturday. Amazingly, it was Ferdinand's first foul of any kind since March.
"His first foul for three months, and it was a penalty. He should be disappointed,'' smiled United skipper Vidic. "Seriously, that is a great run. He is so good at reading the game. He does not commit himself when he doesn't need to, which for a defender, is very important. He is such a good footballer and is playing really well just now.''
It does seem Ferdinand's fitness problems are behind him, although United have concerns over Patrice Evra, Darron Gibson and Nani, in addition to Wayne Rooney, who looked in a bad way after he was caught on the ankle by Chris Brunt but somehow managed to complete United's second away win of the season. It is hardly the ideal state to meet such strong opponents, although Vidic is relishing the contest.
"In English football you have to deal with big, tall strikers and you have to deal with the small, sharp and quick ones. That is why it is the most competitive league in the world. But I just love to defend. Right from when I was young I always liked to defend, to work to stop the other team scoring a goal no matter how they played or who they played for. I have played against the big ones and ones with the technique. In all the years I've been here I learned how to stop them all.''
Meanwhile, Sir Alex Ferguson has slammed Arsene Wenger's criticism of Stoke ahead of the match. United manager Ferguson praised Stoke counterpart Tony Pulis for the way he prepares his side and also for the way in which he copes with the occasional question marks rival bosses raise against it. Wenger, who Ferguson has enjoyed some memorable years of sparring with, was named by the Scot as one such manager.
"People have criticised their physical style of play but they stick to what they do best,'' said Ferguson. "I suppose Arsene Wenger has been one of their main critics, but then he does go off on a tangent at times. For instance, he criticised our pitch after they lost here before Christmas and I was at a loss to understand why. I have a great admiration for Tony and the wry way he rides the criticism levelled at his team. If anything the criticism galvanises the players.''
Wenger, who was incensed by the Ryan Shawcross challenge which led to Aaron Ramsey's broken leg last year, has previously accused Pulis's side of employing "rugby style'' tactics and suggested some were "cowards'' after a bruising encounter in 2008.