When Manchester United lost to Barcelona in the Champions League final two years ago defeat broke thousands of hearts. After all, not only was Sir Alex Ferguson’s side trying to defend Europe’s premier trophy but began the game as favourites. Outclassed by a team now widely regarded as one of the finest in the game’s history, United supporters could only ponder what might have been. Indeed, one of the principal questions raised in the post-match analysis was whether United might have done better if Scot Darren Fletcher had not missed the game.
It was hard on the Scot, sent off during United’s semi-final second leg with Arsenal when the game and tie was already won. Moreover, in committing a ‘professional foul’ Scotland captain Fletcher got the merest toe on the ball, resulting in an unjustified red card, according to many pundits.
Once again 26-year-old Fletcher is in danger of missing a European final having been laid-low with a mysterious virus over the past two months. The illness, which has sidelined Fletcher for the best part of United’s run-in, left the player with considerable weight loss.
Yet, having played some reserve football and a brief appearance in the comfortable win over Schalke last week, Fletcher may take part in this year’s final. He is likely to make another appearance against Blackburn Rovers on Saturday and then – results permitting – will start against Blackpool on the final day of the domestic season.
“Darren has put the weight back on and is back in training, but he has a bit to do yet,” Ferguson confirmed.
“But, as far as the final is concerned, there is almost three weeks to achieve that. If he does reach the target, it will be a big boost to us as we all know he is big-game player. The 20 minutes he got against Schalke last week was certainly a step forward. His training, in terms of sharpness for such an important game, will be stepped up now.
“We’ve also got Blackburn Rovers away, Blackpoool at home, and even Gary Neville’s testimonial game so there’s opportunity for game time that will help him reach his target.”
But the question of Fletcher’s participation in European competition is certainly more nuanced than the midfielder’s fitness. Ferguson has a tactical conundrum to answer, especially with Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs – aided by Wayne Rooney – in such good form during the past six week’s. Indeed, with time on the ball coming at a premium against Barcelona, United’s manager may not benefit from losing the Giggs-Carrick possession axis.
The alternative for Ferguson is to alter the tactical plan that worked so well against Chelsea in recent weeks, with Fletcher augmenting midfield and Rooney ploughing a lone furrow up-front. The change would add more steel to United’s midfield but disrupt Rooney’s renaissance at ‘number 10′ and force in-form Javier Hernández back to the bench. It might be a losing hand too, with United then betting on shutting out the Catalans’ extraordinary attacking threat while catching the opposition on the break.
However, defender Rio Ferdinand has backed the Scot’s return, claiming that Fletcher’s energy will add much to the United cause. It’s a fair point, with Fletcher arguably the only dynamic central midfielder in the United squad capable of effectively playing a more destructive role. Certainly, the horrors of Anderson’s performance against the Spaniards in 2009 will not easily be forgotten.
“Darren can run ridiculous amounts during games,” said Ferdinand.
“Park Ji-sung is the only person who could rival him running-wise. That says a lot. He covers a lot of ground, gets at people and can score important goals. He gets the crowd going and is an integral member of the squad. It will be great to have him back.”
Alternatively, Ferguson may opt to meet fire with fire by sending out an attacking United side to take on the newly re-crowned Spanish champions, consigning the fit Scot, at best, to the bench. The gambler’s instinct may just tip Ferguson to hold Fletcher back and retain a formula that has proven successful against domestic and European opponents recently.
In the meantime United should wrap up the Premier League with ease against a dispirited Blackburn side, which should be safe from relegation but has shown no real form under manager Steve Keen. The game may afford Fletcher 45 minutes this weekend, the full 90 against Blackpool at home and Neville’s testimonial four days before the Wembley final.
On Ferdinand’s part, the former England has promised a better performance from United in the Champions League final than last time out. It couldn’t get much worse.
“I have never watched 2009 again,” the Scot told ManUtd.com.
“But matches like that are hard to forget as it is clear in your head. If you want to sit and think about games like that they come up quite easily. It is like bringing something up on the internet. I have not watched it but I have re-run it in my head a few times. We never played. We never got on the ball. We weren’t Manchester United that day. This time we will give a better account of ourselves.
“On the way back we were sitting there thinking if only we had gone out and played and been the real Manchester United, it would have been different. They always say you don’t want to come off the pitch with any regrets. There were regrets that night.”
For Fletcher, fitness ought not to be a regret two years down the line.