The rather bizarre spectacle of Manchester United awaiting their train south at Stockport station yesterday showed up those for whom a Champions League semi-final was no more onerous than a May Day bank holiday city break. Sir Alex Ferguson meandered around the sweet counter at the little café on platform two, while Ryan Giggs supped on a coffee, under the watchful eye of a security guard.
But not all of Ferguson's players have left the platform quite yet. The sum of money United paid Porto for the services of Anderson two summers ago – £17m – suggested that he was a player of the calibre of Cesc Fabregas, whose creative powers the Brazilian may be seeking to stem at the Emirates tonight.
But the player who was deemed to be the natural successor to Paul Scholes when he walked into Old Trafford is yet to prove that he might be. Owen Hargreaves' prolonged absence has given him ample opportunities this season but the absence of goals from the 21-year-old throws him into sharp contrast with Scholes, whose abundance of them on important occasions has made him sixth in the chart of United's all-time top goalscorers.
Anderson is yet to register one. There have been many times this season when he might have found the net but his failure to do so once has become a source of amusement around Carrington. "We're all lighting the candles for that," his manager joked, when the topic cropped up three days ago. It is a serious matter, though, and one which, had United's anxious April days gone on much longer, might have prompted a treatise or two on their lack of a goalscoring midfielder to go with all those strikers. Where is their Gerrard, Lampard, or Fabregas? It seems fair to ask.
Ferguson, however, seems prepared to wait for Anderson. The United manager also spoke last week of the Brazilian's development as a strong, box-to-box midfielder. "He has fantastic speed and strength and he is only 21," Ferguson said, and the sentiment can only have been strengthened by the powerful counter-attacking force which Anderson, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher proved as Arsenal were blown away in the first half of the first-leg tie last Wednesday.
There was the characteristic goal-scoring opportunity spurned – a shot scooped over – but it was Anderson's most decisive display in a United shirt and the midfielder's strength contributed in large measure to the way that Samir Nasri was shut out of the game (thus cutting off Fabregas's supply line) and that United countered swiftly from midfield. Tellingly, neither Anderson, Carrick nor Fletcher featured against Middlesbrough on Saturday and Ferguson may choose that midfield combination again tonight.
The uncertainty for Ferguson is how the youngster might respond, if selected. The job he did on Steven Gerrard at Old Trafford last season convinced the United manager to select him for the same fixture this March, a calculation which backfired badly. But when it came to selecting his side for Old Trafford last week Ferguson would not have forgotten the way Anderson also dominated Arsenal in the 4-0 FA Cup win in February last year.
Memories of Moscow, last May, will also have been in Ferguson's mind this past week. The nerveless penalty Anderson tucked away against Chelsea that night suggests he can be counted on if tonight's outcome needs a shoot-out. Anderson's train, it seems, will leave that platform.Reuse content