The big-game hunter: Fletcher set to provide United's missing link

Midfielder hit by debilitating virus returns tonight to give Ferguson's midfield some much-needed steel

These are the May evenings which can make or break a player and the hollow look on Darren Fletcher's face two years ago as he dragged himself on to a coach outside the Emirates Stadium after Manchester United had booked a place in the Champions League final told you which of two experiences he was living through. It should have been a night of euphoria but Italian referee Roberto Rosetti's red card had deprived Fletcher of a place against Barcelona in Rome and everyone was affected.

In the final reckoning, Sir Alex Ferguson probably suffered the consequences more than anyone. United's dismal 2-0 defeat in the Stadio Olimpico was barely five minutes into the history books before the manager surfaced to say that Fletcher's absence had cost him dearly. "I thought before the game it may have been a problem," the United manager admitted, "because he is a big-game player. And he was a big loss for us. It's difficult to say how big."

At Old Trafford tonight Ferguson steps towards another grand finale nursing the same anxieties about his midfielder. Another kind of haunting has beset the 27-year-old Scot this spring – a virus which has afflicted him since the eve of United's defeat to Liverpool on 6 March, causing him listlessness and a shocking loss of weight which reduced his time at Carrington to intermittent visits to the doctor. Only this evening, after 12 games without the Scot, can Ferguson finally look forward to Fletcher stepping over the white line again, almost certainly from the substitutes' bench.

"Darren will play part of the game," Ferguson disclosed yesterday. "His weight is back to normal. It's just that issue of more time and strength." But the frown that played across his face was borne of a knowledge that in many ways Fletcher has been the missing link in the potentially season-defining games which United have lost in the past month.

Sunday's defeat to Arsenal came because Park Ji-sung sauntered into his own penalty area and watched Aaron Ramsey, who had just passed round him, to run in to score. The FA Cup semi-final defeat to Manchester City 15 days earlier occurred because a similar lapse from Michael Carrick had allowed Yaya Touré in to score.

Seasons rest on split seconds like this and Ferguson needs a better defender of the United faith in his midfield with Chelsea and – almost certainly Barcelona – standing in the road. The manager never tires of saying that Fletcher is a player for the big occasion: "In big games Darren has excelled over the years because he has the knowledge and discipline to carry out a job; whatever I want him to do," the manager said 12 days ago. "When he does come back, he will go straight into the team."

United fans have certainly come to agree. The Old Trafford banners which read "Darren Fletcher is a football genius", are no longer raised in irony towards a player who took some time to enter local affections and the only surprising aspect of Fletcher's form last season was that people were still surprised by it. Even Ferguson admitted he "did not expect that goal", dispatched by Fletcher against Everton in November 2009, which still lives in the memory. He ran Wayne Rooney closest for last season's United Player of the Year award.

The unanswered question for now is whether Fletcher can re-attain those levels needed to prevent a midfield which has looked far from impregnable, being overrun in the next three weeks. He has not reached the same peaks in the current campaign. The Scot formed part of the midfield which was swamped by Chelsea in the second half of the 2-1 league defeat at Stamford Bridge. Neither will he care to remember the Charlie Adam nutmeg which symbolised his winning of their battle in the first half at Blackpool, as United were initially overwhelmed in January.

Chelsea's vital 2-1 victory at Old Trafford in April last year also happened when Florent Malouda shrugged off the challenges of Antonio Valencia and Fletcher to fire the cross which Joe Cole backheeled in for the winner.

None of which should detract from the fact that Fletcher will restore steel where United have needed it. Ferguson's struggle to find the ideal midfield combination – exacerbated by Darron Gibson's failure to make the grade and the increasing sense that Paul Scholes is a man heading towards summer retirement before his testimonial – is reflected in the many midfield set-ups he has tried of late, with wide players generally the main source of attacking thrusts.

Ferguson's mood on the beach this summer is as likely to be defined by the tenacity of his midfield as by the indisputable genius of his forwards. If any player is equipped to make the intervention which was needed – but lacking – before Andres Iniesta was allowed the space and time to make the incisive run which set up Samuel Eto'o for Barcelona's opening goal in Rome in 2009, then it is Fletcher.

Carrick dismissed the suggestion put to him yesterday that his own love of time on the ball makes him a player better suited to Champions League football – "Not really; you just adjust your game, adapt your styles," he said – but it was not an unreasonable one. Fletcher is the man for the battle.

He has helped keep the United show on the road in this most tempestuous of seasons, insisting while some team-mates kept their heads down at the height of Rooney's contract saga, that, "Other clubs can have money, ridiculous amounts of it, but this club's history drives it forward."

Following 45 minutes of reserve team football against Arsenal last week, he offered a modest assessment at the weekend of the role he can now play. "I want to give the manager another option and play some small part in the Premier League or Champions League," Fletcher declared. "All I can ask for is a sub appearance or starting the odd game. I want to be involved but it's a squad game." His manager will feel otherwise. The sun's up and it is the time for Darren Fletcher to step up.

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