Fletcher is our future declares Ferguson

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The Independent Football

If, as a procession of United players dared to venture, the end of Chelsea's 40-game unbeaten run is to have the same demoralising effect on the champions as afflicted Arsenal after their defeat in the same raucous arena last season, then Sunday's result must be the start of sustained pressure on the leaders' confidence, not an isolated incident for Old Trafford to savour. In that respect, Ferguson can take as much satisfaction out of Fletcher's actions on the final whistle as he did with his decisive header.

While the architect of Chelsea's defeat wallowed in the moment, the executioner sprinted straight for the tunnel, leaving the mass celebrations behind and slowing only to offer a handshake to Petr Cech and the briefest of applause to his delirious supporters. Having become one of the main targets for criticism from the stands and from within his own dressing-room in the previous seven days, the Scotland international had every right to savour the moment but responded in the manner of a veteran who knows how much hard work lies ahead if the taunts are to be silenced forever.

Ferguson, who has confirmed his intentions to strengthen his squad in January, contends that his young charges cannot be expected to deliver consistency and leadership in times of crisis. Nevertheless, in Fletcher and Alan Smith, who at 25 would not be bracketed among the inexperienced but for his new start in midfield, the United manager witnessed two performances on that have set a benchmark for the rest of the season.

"Darren has taken a bit of criticism but people have to remember he is only 21 and was out of the game for almost two years [with a knee ligament injury] and showed great determination just to come back from that," said Ferguson.

"Young lads like Darren are the future of our club and we do not want to destroy them. I am not interested in the criticism but it is not easy for any young player to perform at their best when they are being criticised.

"These lads have not cried off and they have not deserted their posts just because of all the injuries among the experienced lads. They have wanted to play every game and they have carried us through this bad spell."

Carlos Queiroz, the United assistant manager, described Fletcher's performance as "beautiful" and said of Smith's man-of-the-match endeavour: "He played like all great central midfield players - with attitude, discipline and commitment," but ultimately it will be the long-term reaction to Sunday's encounter that will determine the significance of the result. For Chelsea, defeated in the Carling Cup by Charlton, the Champions' League by Real Betis and now United in the past fortnight, there is the incentive to demonstrate the resilience Arsenal lacked in the wake of their Old Trafford upset last season.

"Don't be surprised if we go on another 40-game unbeaten run again. We have got lots of characters in the side and there is nothing to worry about," Eidur Gudjohnsen said.

The comparison with Arsène Wenger's team was enough to inspire Jose Mourinho's declaration on Sunday that Chelsea will retain the title, while the challenge now facing United is directed as much at themselves as Stamford Bridge.

"The victory proves that United are not dead and we can still fight for first position in the Premiership this season," Mikael Silvestre said. "But we have to perform like that in every game. We are capable of going on a run. It will be interesting to see how Chelsea react to back-to-back defeats.

"They have already had a couple of games when they had only one good chance - against Wigan and Arsenal - so maybe it is their turn to have a bad run and maybe at the same time we can string some victories together."

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