Ferdinand craves end to injury pain

After missing the last four games, United's defensive linchpin returns tonight to face the most prolific attack in Europe. Ian Herbert reports from Rome
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For the implacable, unruffled presence we are so accustomed to seeing at the heart of Manchester United's defence, Rio Ferdinand has displayed some extraordinary levels of emotion this season. From some serious leaping around after Federico Macheda's late goal secured a vital win against Aston Villa at Old Trafford last month to the smacker planted on Darren Fletcher's cheek during the recent victory at Wigan Athletic, this is what winning a third successive Premier League title has meant.

It is also what comes of watching the game from the stands rather than playing, because that is where Ferdinand was consigned to on both of those occasions and, he explains, it has made for some unmitigated frustration over the course of the last nine months.

Take that evening at Wigan earlier this month, enduring the finale to a game which was to put United a point away from the title. "We won but they scored first and all their fans were turning round and giving it this and that towards where we were sitting," Ferdinand recalls. "Then we scored and I was the loudest person in the directors' box. I turned to Fletch and said: 'If they score again now I am absolutely fucked'. So when we scored the second goal I just got up and left straight away. I had to, because if I had gone nuts and then they had scored again I would have been so embarrassed." As play continued inside the ground, Ferdinand climbed in his car, drove home to Alderley Edge, Cheshire, and could not even face turning the car radio on. "I just texted one of my mates to see if we had held on and won."

A season awaiting medical bulletins on his fitness has made for some more agonising moments, the 30-year-old being afflicted with injuries on a regular basis for the first time in his career: first, the periodic back spasms which kept him out for much of January, then the rib knock which had him coughing up blood in an A&E unit and missing three games last month, and now the calf problem which he should shake off to be fit to face Barcelona in the Champions League final tonight. "I've been fine up until now," he says. "Then I turn 30 and I've hit a brick wall. I've had a couple of knee operations in the past, but nothing drastic that has kept me out for more than two or three weeks. It's been a stop-start season really, which has been very disappointing."

He is discovering the frustrating chain reaction that injuries can often have, as a player physically overreaches in one area to compensate for a weakness elsewhere. "I came back from the [back] problem then picked up another injury, which in turn triggers something else, so this summer I'll be working to make sure I don't get the same problems I've had this season." That won't be easy. The back complaint which initially baffled United's medical staff now means massage before every training session and a consultation with an osteopath several times a week, as well as extra upper-body strengthening work – a regime which will have to continue throughout his career. "If I missed one day [of that new regime] I could get a problem, so I have to do it every day."

Significant for tonight's events in Rome is Ferdinand's ability to fit immediately and seamlessly back into United's defence after periods out. He had missed three games before his monumental performance in the quarter-final second leg in Porto, United's toughest test of this European campaign so far, and has now sat out four matches since the semi-final second leg at Arsenal.

The incentive is there, of course, just as it has been since that wet night in Moscow 12 months ago when Ferdinand, Fletcher and Owen Hargreaves sat in the dressing room in the aftermath of victory over Chelsea and talked of how it would feel to repeat that European Cup triumph. "We were saying it was the best thing ever and that we had to come back and do it again," Ferdinand remembers. "When you looked around the changing room, it was telling that people were thinking about it." A combination of injury and suspension means Ferdinand is the only one of the three to have made it back, and you sense that he wants the suspended Fletcher to walk up the Stadio Olimpico steps if United triumph. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," he says. "But it has been difficult for him [Fletcher]. Quite a few bad things have happened to him this season [Fletcher's girlfriend was held up in a robbery while he was playing at Internazionale in the last 16] but you wouldn't know it by seeing him around the place. He is not an emotional person outwardly."

Barcelona have a stronger side than the one United beat in last season's semi-final – "They're better at winning the ball in the opposition's half. They still pass the ball across the pitch, sideways and stuff, but when they work an opportunity they break through," Ferdinand declares – but the defender has no intention of being anywhere near a seat in the directors' box tonight. "My heart rate has certainly gone up more when I have been watching than when I have been playing," he says. "I'm a bad watcher and a bad loser."