Fletcher the driving force
Back in May 2009, when Sir Alex Ferguson had time to reflect on Manchester United's Champions League final failure, he pondered varying reasons for their defeat against Barcelona. The below-par performances of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney were major factors. But Ferguson pointed to the absence of Darren Fletcher, through suspension, as another.
This was a player about whom Roy Keane, the former United captain, once asked why "people rave about", and who the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger criticised for constant fouls and tactics that were "anti-football". But Fletcher has been one of Ferguson's unsung heroes and the man he felt could have made much more difficult for Xavi and Andres Iniesta in that 2-0 defeat. The stylish Spaniards controlled midfield that night; rarely put under pressure and forced into mistakes. That is not often the case for opponents when Fletcher is on the pitch.
Not only does the Scotsman work immensely hard to help defence, he offers a threat in attack with his astute passing ability and goals. Such has been his impact and influence that he has become United's "big-time" player and a candidate for future captain. For many, Fletcher has grown into a hybrid of Keane and his idol Paul Scholes. "He's been an inspiration my whole United career," said Fletcher of Scholes, who is still going strong at 35. "He might not be box to box, but he can still score goals as he did at Wolves [with the winner in March].
"He still sprays passes around, the first yard is in his head. It's a privilege to play in the same team as him. If I get anywhere near the career Scholes has, I will have done well." When it comes to the Champions League, the pair share a common personal bond too. It is a painful memory that still rankles and drives them on to make the most of opportunities like tonight's quarter-final tie against Bayern Munich.
As Fletcher sat out last season's final against Barcelona with a ban, Scholes suffered the same fate 10 years earlier against Bayern, although United claimed the trophy that time with a dramatic 2-1 victory. While much of the focus in tonight's first-leg meeting at Munich's Allianz Arena will be on Rooney and Franck Ribery, Bayern's flamboyant French winger, the performances of Fletcher and Scholes are likely to be just as crucial to the outcome.
"It was disappointing not to play in the final last year and I want to rectify it," added Fletcher. "It's the goal of the whole team. The disappointment of the final; we didn't so ourselves justice. Everyone is desperate [to make amends]." A knee injury is unlikely to prevent Rooney from playing and trying to add to his 33-goal tally for the season. But Fletcher dismissed the suggestion of Arjen Robben, Bayern's Dutch winger, that United are a one-man team. He said: "It's a mistake to think that if you stop Rooney you stop United.
"We have a lot of players who can do a lot of damage. [Ji-sung] Park makes fantastic runs, [Antonio] Valencia and Nani have done so well. We have experience in the team, and Rooney is part of that." The absence of Ribery or Robben may have a more damaging effect on Bayern as they pursue a first Champions League triumph since 2001. These two talented wide men provide the creativity that might be able to overcome the obstinate United defence that has kept clean sheets in five of the last six games.
Robben is a major doubt with a calf strain and Bayern hope he can recover. Franz Beckenbauer, the club's president, admitted: "I think the play of Bayern is influenced by whether Ribery is 100 per cent fit, or whether Robben is 100 per cent fit because both of them make a difference. "They can decide games. If the two of them are 100 per cent fit, I think we have a good chance against Manchester United." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
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Published: March 30, 2010 04:00 AM