Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has lauded Rio Ferdinand as arguably the best defender in Europe.
Ferdinand's partnership at the back with Nemanja Vidic was, by popular opinion, one of the main reasons the club won a notable double last season.
The former Leeds and West Ham United star is widely tipped to become a future United and England captain.
Ferdinand returned to the side on Tuesday in the victory against Orlando Pirates in the Vodacom Challenge following a back problem.
It was his first pre-season match after he sat out the draw against Kaizer Chiefs at the weekend and the friendly at Aberdeen.
Ferguson said: 'Rio has been the best defender in the country if not Europe for a couple of years.
'His maturity and leadership have been key factors in the team's success.
'He is someone that young players learn from and that more experienced players respect.
'I have not seen a better defensive pairing than him and Nemanja for a long time.'
And former Manchester United centre-back, and Old Trafford favourite, Gary Pallister agrees with Ferguson.
'When Rio is at his best, there is no finer defender in Europe,' Pallister said.
'He has pace, is composed and uses the ball intelligently.'
Ferdinand has not always been a popular figure among Manchester United supporters, who were especially aggrieved at the defender's contract stand-off three years ago which came after his eight-month ban for a missed drugs test.
However, in signing that deal, and another one last season which will keep the Londoner at Old Trafford until 2013, he has silenced the critics who claimed he wanted to return to the capital.
He has secured Premier League title medals in his last two seasons, as well captaining United to Champions League glory in Moscow, and Ferdinand has now cemented his place in Red Devils folklore.
'We all know he had a difficult time with his contract negotiations and before that the missed drugs test. But these are the kind of events that make you stronger and Rio is now fulfilling all the potential people knew he had.'
With Fabio Capello due to announce his England captain ahead of next month's friendly with the Czech Republic, Ferdinand could start the season with some good news too.
Certainly Pallister would not be surprised in the least if the 29-year-old won his personal battle with John Terry for the coveted role.
'Rio Ferdinand has excelled as a captain and a leader,' he said.
'Those qualities first came to the fore at Leeds and now they are doing so at Old Trafford.
'He has grown into the job and United really benefited from that last season when Gary Neville was out.
'Rio has all the credentials required to captain United all the time. That job is currently taken by Gary but it would not shock me at all if he got the job for England.'
United are preparing for the final game of the tournament on Saturday in Pretoria against either the Pirates or the Kaizer Chiefs, who meet on Thursday night.
Then on Sunday they move on to Nigeria for a friendly against Portsmouth before flying home.
After winning the Champions League and retaining their Premier League title, Ferguson feels this is a vital time in their build-up to the new campaign.
He said: 'In many ways, having won two trophies last year makes pre-season even more important.
'But I am confident the players have the hunger and the desire to mount a strong challenge to defend their titles.'
erguson is expected to give another run-out to some of his promising youngsters with Fraizer Campbell, Jonny Evans, Danny Simpson, Chris Eagles, Lee Martin and Darron Gibson all featuring against Pirates.
And according to the Scot, the difference between being on the fringes and being promoted to the team can be down purely to keeping your focus.
He said: 'Concentration is one of the vital components of players making that step across the line to be first-team players. We often under-rate the value of concentration.
'They can practice all day long, they can have fantastic ability but if they do not have concentration to make everything happen, then they are never going to be there. That is a fact.'