Saturday, 14 May 2011

Darren Fletcher must prove Champions League fitness

Darren Fletcher will be given 180 minutes to prove he is ready to face Barcelona. The Scotland international played for United’s reserves on Wednesday and is set to play a part at Blackburn.

Sir Alex Ferguson believes the midfielder will be crucial to avenging defeat to Barca in the 2009 Champions League final and is desperate to have him involved when the sides go head-to-head at Wembley.

Fletcher has recovered from the virus that ruled him out for almost two months, but is still working towards match fitness.

He played for more than an hour against Blackburn reserves and came through unscathed.

He is expected to start at Ewood Park tomorrow in a match that United need only a point from to secure a record 19th league title. “We still have to get that point,” said Fletcher. “We still have a job to do. The Chelsea result has set us up but we want to win the match.

“We will be going to win the match because we know how important it is for the fans."

Ferguson added: "We want to give him a chance. He is back training every day and is now over his virus.

"Darren played for the reserves on Wednesday, which has hopefully brought him on and we have Blackpool next week and Gary Neville's testimonial on the Tuesday before the final, so that gives us the opportunity to get him right."

Fletcher was suspended for the 2009 final after being harshly sent off in the semi final victory over Arsenal.

And his absence was felt as Barca’s midfield of Xavi and Andres Iniesta dominated in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico.

Without a recognised midfield enforcer that night, the Catalan’s were allowed to run riot, with Lionel Messi ruthlessly exploiting the freedom he was allowed.

Ferguson has insisted ever since that he knows what went wrong that night – and the absence of Fletcher is generally acknowledged as a key factor.

But as much as he wants his countryman in his starting XI on May 28, he will not risk Fletcher if he is not fully fit.

Intensity

Ferguson knows it could be disastrous to throw the 28-year-old into a game of such high intensity if the final comes too soon in his recovery.

Fletcher was left out of last Sunday’s clash with Chelsea and only played 20 minutes of the Champions League semi final second leg with Schalke.

Ferguson always earmarked the last two Premier League games of the season as the opportunity for him to sharpen up for the final having not started a game since March 1. The United manager has long-described Fletcher as a “big game” player and has likened him to Old Trafford legend, Mark Hughes, in his ability to perform on the highest level.

Fletcher lost significant weight while out and has spent the past month trying to put it back on, while working on his strength.

Ferguson will try to juggle his squad between now and the end of the season.

He will want to rest key players in the build up to Barca, while also securing the point necessary to clinch the title at Ewood Park.

With United playing both Blackburn and Blackpool in their final two fixtures they could also have a major say on the relegation battle.

Ferguson would not want to face accusations that he put out weakened teams against clubs fighting to avoid the drop.

But he will be determined to ensure United are in the best possible shape for Wembley.

That could mean starts for Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen, with Paul Scholes, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and
Darron Gibson also in the frame.

Ferguson will be heartened by the performance of his much-changed team in the 4-1 win against Schalke.

He is convinced that United will get the necessary point to move clear of Liverpool’s 18 titles and is already planning for the final.

United spent much of the week working on a system to stop Barca, which could see Ferguson revert to a five-man midfield after opting for a front two of Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez towards the end of the season.

But much could depend on how Fletcher comes through the next two games.

Tomorrow’s trip to Ewood will give United the chance to exorcise the ghost of last season when a goalless draw played a part in their relinquishing of the title.

Coming after defeat to Chelsea and Champions League elimination at the hands of Bayern Munich, Berbatov missed a gilt-edged to claim all three points.

The Bulgarian may well get the chance to make amends, but it is unlikely he will be able to force his way into Ferguson’s thinking for a starting role against Barca.

Despite his 21 goals this season – including five against Blackburn in November – he has been consistently overlooked in the big games.

There remain doubts about his Old Trafford future, with Roma, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Tottenham all links with summer moves for him.

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