Not for the first time in his Manchester United career, Paul Scholes struggled for words in his side's dressing room at the Emirates Stadium late on Tuesday night. What to say to a desolate Darren Fletcher, slumped before him and contemplating the red card which consigns him to three weeks of purgatory amid the build-up to the European Cup final in Rome? Scholes, who missed the 1999 final for the yellow card he received for his two-footed tackle in the late stages of the second leg of the semi-final against Juventus, simply extended a hand. "I don't think there's that much you can do," Scholes reflected. "I said 'Well played' and told him he was fantastic again, just as he was in the first leg."
Scholes' experience pales against Fletcher's because there were few arguments about referee Urs Meier's decision to book him in the Stadio delle Alpi in April 1999. "There weren't too many complaints about it," Scholes said. "This is totally different. It was never a red card, simple as that."
Last May's triumph over Chelsea in the final in Moscow helped Scholes bury his own ghost, of course, but there is a sense around United that the club have something still to prove. "Ten years ago we didn't manage to go on from that victory over Bayern Munich," Scholes said. "This time we've done that and managed to give ourselves a great chance of retaining the trophy. We know it's going to be difficult. But after we won it in 1999, we didn't get close again for a number of years. But I think now the strength in depth is there for everyone to see and hopefully we can win it again."
United are more than aware of the significance of retaining the trophy. Even before the season began, Rio Ferdinand revealed the players had sat in the dressing room of the Luzhniki Stadium last year and discussed winning it again in 2008-09. Scholes also shares the feeling articulated by his manager that United need a more prominent place in the firmament of sides who have lifted it.
"The sign of a big club, in European terms, is winning the Champions League," he said. "Liverpool have won it five times, Milan have won it a lot of times, Real Madrid and so on. We believe we should be up there with them. But you can't guarantee you're going to win it just from the talent you have. We said the same after winning it last year – that we wanted to kick on and win it again, like the Liverpools and Madrids have done over the years, and get into that bracket."
There are others for whom Rome promises to offer rich significance. They include Ji-sung Park, whose performance against Arsenal on Tuesday was arguably his finest for the club since he joined four years ago and who, having been one player to miss out on a squad place in Moscow, may well be in the starting XI this season. "I don't think he'll be disappointed this time," Ferguson said of a player he considers to be "one of the most under-rated players in the game".
Wayne Rooney is another who will cherish Rome more than most, having been a part of the United squad who went out in the group stage four years ago with a mere three goals from six matches and not even a Uefa Cup place for their trouble. Experience is what United now have and what Arsenal lacked at the Emirates, he said. "When I first joined I was 18, Cristiano was 18-19, Fletch [Darren Fletcher] was 20," Rooney said. "We had a lot of young players but over the last few years we've got the experience that's helped the team to progress. Arsenal [were] a young team with a lot of young players out there and I think that helped us as well."
His comments may raise a rueful smile from the Turkish goalkeeper Rustu Reçber, now at Besiktas but with Fenerbahçe on the September night in 2004 when Rooney, all 18 years and 11 months of him, smashed a hat-trick on his Champions League debut. But he, Ronaldo, Fletcher and Park have grown together at the club, learned to contend with counter-attacking European sides and offer something similar of their own.
* Suggestions in yesterday's Independent that Manchester United fans used racist language during chants about Patrick Viera during the Arsenal match on Tuesday were inaccurate. The chants were not racist and we apologise for any offence caused.
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