JI-SUNG PARK, Anderson and Michael Owen will hope goals scored against Blackpool add impetus to their Champions League final chances but it will be Darren Fletcher who gives Alex Ferguson the most sleepless nights as he ponders how many of the team that ended the league season with a 4-2 victory should start against Barcelona.
The case to play Fletcher at Wembley next weekend is both a tactical and an emotional one and it is also one of toughest decisions Ferguson has had to face.
The midfielder, remember, missed the 2009 final in Rome after being harshly sent off in the semi-final against Arsenal; and more recently he has had to battle to recover from a debilitating illness that saw him ruled out for three months.
Many onlookers, including Arsene Wenger who predicts United will go for a ‘rougher midfield’ against the Spanish champions next weekend, believe the Scotsman’s combative edge could be crucial in breaking up the momentum of Barca’s ‘holy trinity’ of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta; and if so there is a big selection decision to be made.
“What we have to do is find a solution to the Xavi-Messi-Iniesta problem. Everyone is searching for that because they are outstanding footballers,” Ferguson admitted recently when asked about the tactical challenge of taking on the greatest club side of the decade.
The United manager has often said he knows exactly what went wrong that day in Italy two years ago, hinting strongly the absence of Fletcher was a key factor in a disappointing performance; and he certainly seems minded to give the 28-year-old a chance of playing in five days’ time.
“We have to give Darren Fletcher every opportunity to be fit, because he’s such a big big-game player,” he said yesterday. “We’re trying to push him on to the level he needs. He’s getting closer. We’re going to give him a chance of making the final.”
The problem for Ferguson is judging whether his fellow Scot is fit enough for the role, and on this performance it will be a gamble — but potentially one worth taking.
Fletcher, looking noticeably thinner than before his illness, was by no means outstanding against Blackpool but he lasted the distance at Old Trafford and will also be given action in Gary Neville’s testimonial match against Juventus on Tuesday.
You don’t need access to United’s GPS stats to know he is not yet at full throttle but the midfielder did work hard, moving from midfield to right-back for the final five minutes and giving everything for the cause.
Even so it’s a tough call because what United need more than anything against Barcelona is energy; energy to close down their opponents, energy to win back the ball after long spells of Spanish possession and energy to stretch their opponents on the break at every opportunity.
With that in mind, Ji-Sung Park must surely have booked his place in the starting XI with his performance in a 4-2 victory.
The unsung hero of Old Trafford, one of the team’s most improved players, scored the first and made the second for United in another unselfish lung-busting display that typifies the effort and skill he has shown all year; so United may not need to park the bus to beat Barcelona but they could certainly do with Park on the bus if they want to lift the trophy.
“His work ethic is quite superb. What an asset he is to Man United,” drooled former Manchester United midfielder Ray Wilkins from his position in the commentary box, and it’s hard to disagree.
Anderson also performed well in midfield, providing a strong range of passing and a well-taken goal, while Owen came off the bench to score with a trademark finish and add his own postscript to an entertaining match.
“Michael says there’s an important goal in him and it’s something I’ll have to consider,” said Ferguson. “I’ve got 18 to choose from 25 so it’s a very difficult one for me.”
If Owen does make the bench he is certain to be sitting alongside Dimitar Berbatov, because although the Bulgarian remains United’s top scorer this season he missed four good chances against Blackpool and knows he has already been overtaken by Javier Hernandez in the race to play at Wembley.
That’s a decision, of course, that Fergie made a long time ago; but there are others he will be sweating over for some time yet.
It could be a long, long week for some very big names, but especially for Darren Fletcher.
Possible team to face Barcelona: Van der Sar, Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra, Valencia, Park, Fletcher/Carrick, Giggs, Rooney, Hernandez.
On the bench: Fletcher/Carrick, Berbatov, Scholes, O’Shea, Smalling, Nani, Kuszczak.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved