Fletcher rallies United's effort to reclaim second place

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The Independent Football

Darren Fletcher, the Manchester United midfielder, has admitted it is imperative the club do not finish below second place in the Premiership this season.

Darren Fletcher, the Manchester United midfielder, has admitted it is imperative the club do not finish below second place in the Premiership this season.

Not only did Saturday's 0-0 draw with Blackburn end any realistic hope of United overhauling the leaders, Chelsea, it also allowed Arsenal to push them back into third following their comfortable victory over Norwich.

Unless Sir Alex Ferguson's side can reverse positions with Arsenal over the final seven games, for the second season running they will start their campaign with a potentially hazardous Champions' League qualifier.

Aside from an immediate £2m loss in revenue from the world's most lucrative club competition, it also raises the threat of elimination before the tournament proper even begins, an unthinkable prospect for Ferguson and the United chief executive, David Gill.

Though United eventually eased past Dinamo Bucharest, advancing 5-1 on aggregate, in this season's qualifier, they did fall behind to the Romanians in the first leg and Ferguson will need no reminding of the embarrassing 1-0 defeat to the Hungarian side Zalaegerszeg at the same stage three years ago.

United eventually overcame that shock with a 5-0 win at Old Trafford, but with the likes of Lokomotiv Moscow, Hajduk Split, Dynamo Kiev and Partizan Belgrade, conquerors of Newcastle in the 2003-04 qualifiers, all likely to be lying in wait, Fletcher acknowledges the need for automatic qualification.

"It is vital we qualify for the Champions' League by finishing second," the Scotland international said. "We do not want to be going to Eastern Europe for a qualifier with no competitive games behind us to play a team who have already started their season and are fresh.

"The Champions' League is a massive competition for us and any slip-up at that stage would be disastrous," Fletcher added.

Despite losing just three of their 40 matches in domestic competitions this season, some critics are ready to write United's campaign off as a total failure.

At most other clubs, a place in the top three and qualification for the semi-finals of both the FA and League Cups would be regarded as a success. Not at United, though, a situation Fletcher and his team-mates accept, judging by the mood at their Carrington training ground on Monday.

"There is a high expectation level here, but that is one of the reasons why you want to play for Manchester United," said Fletcher, who is unlikely to return from his knee injury for another fortnight. "Everyone was disappointed in training yesterday because we realise we are in a battle for second place now.

"We were hoping Chelsea would slip up, but that looks highly unlikely now, so we have to try and get above Arsenal. And don't forget, we also have the FA Cup to play for.

"Maybe at the beginning of the season we look towards the Champions' League and the Premiership," Fletcher admitted, "but the FA Cup is a massive competition and we want to defend our trophy."

Although they have won the trophy a record 11 times, United have never successfully defended the FA Cup, which at least gives Ferguson and his squad a small piece of history to aim for.

However, their chances of overcoming Newcastle in the FA Cup semi-final on 17 April have been reduced by Ryan Giggs' hamstring injury. "He felt it in his first sprint of the game," said Ferguson after Giggs limped off in the sixth minute against Blackburn. "He'll probably miss the semi-final now."

Ferguson is planning to hand Alan Smith a starting place at Norwich on Saturday even though the England forward failed to catch the eye in a reserve team game at Everton on Monday night.

The injury-plagued striker Louis Saha should also be available for the trip to Carrow Road, and the out-of-form Ruud van Nistelrooy may be dropped.