Fletcher handed late chance to earn Wembley start

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The Independent Football

Darren Fletcher will start a game for Manchester United for the first time since the beginning of March tomorrow with Sir Alex Ferguson admitting that the fitness of the Scotland international midfielder is his primary pre-occupation in the build-up to next weekend's Champions League final meeting with Barcelona.

The United manager's comments serve as an indication that, for all the high-profile star power currently packed into his squad, it is the quietly effective play of Fletcher which Ferguson considers integral to his chances of defeating the Spanish side at Wembley a week today.

Fletcher has not started a game since a league defeat at Chelsea more than two months ago as he has contended with the effects of a stomach virus. But, after the midfielder's successful midweek reserve outing, Ferguson is set to start him against Blackpool tomorrow and, potentially, further game practice will come in Gary Neville's testimonial against Juventus on Tuesday.

"I think there are a couple of things we have to address," said Ferguson when asked how close he is to deciding upon his Wembley line-up. "We have given Darren Fletcher every opportunity to be fit because he is a big big-game player for us. He played in the reserves the other night and he will play on Sunday. We have a game on Tuesday so we are chasing him along to give him the chance of being ready for the final.

"The midfield positions are the main part," Ferguson added. "Anderson has trained really well. [Paul] Scholes has the experience – they will play on Sunday, that gives everyone game-time where we want it."

Fletcher missed United's Champions League final defeat to Barcelona two years ago as a result of suspension and while Ferguson still refuses to detail precisely why he believes his side was so well beaten on that occasion, it is clear he believes the Scot can play a key role in avoiding a similar fate.

"It wasn't key to us losing but it was a loss to us," said Ferguson. "They had lost [Dani] Alves, who was probably an important player for them too. But it was a loss and a disappointment.

"He [Fletcher] is much, much better, getting stronger. He's doing all his work. After the reserve game, he trained the whole day, completed the session the next day, because he is very keen to get there and we will give him every chance."

Ferguson has confirmed that Patrice Evra, Dimitar Berbatov and Edwin van der Sar will join Scholes, Anderson and Fletcher in his starting line-up against Blackpool, news that will be greeted enthusiastically by their relegation rivals.

He will also make Van der Sar captain for the occasion of his last competitive appearance at Old Trafford. "I think that would probably be the right thing to do," said Ferguson. "He's been fantastic, absolutely sensational; his professionalism, dedication.

"For a goalkeeper, training is different to outfield players. It involves diving about their goalmouth all the time, saving shots, blocks, to do that when you're over 40 years of age – it's hard to imagine a normal person would do that."

Double Tops For United

*Manchester United picked up another couple of titles yesterday as manager Alex Ferguson and captain Nemanja Vidic were named Barclays manager and player of the year.

United last week won the Premier League title for a record 19th time, and 12th under Ferguson, ahead of next weekend's Champions League final against Barcelona at Wembley. Vidic has played 45 games for United this season, scoring five goals.

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