By Joe Wright
It was another night of milestones at Old Trafford on Tuesday: the first Champions League match since last season’s ignominious early exit, the first goal in Europe for three years for Michael Carrick, the first appearances in the competition for Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie for their new club.
Yet despite the positive result, Manchester United’s return to Europe’s elite was something of an inauspicious occasion: Kagawa’s impact was sporadic, Van Persie’s frankly non-existent, and opponents Galatasaray were firmly in the ascendancy as the roar of their support had the hosts mired in nervous silence. Of course, that is, until the 79th minute when the roof was practically hoisted from the rafters as Darren Fletcher took to the field in place of Paul Scholes.
The Scot has not played a senior game since last November after taking temporary leave from the game in a bid to overcome a chronic bowel complaint, but he began his 10-minute cameo to tumultuous applause from the United faithful who, in truth, had had very little to shout about since Michael Carrick struck the game’s only goal after just seven minutes.
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While his appearance may have made little difference in the context of the match as United held on for their 1-0 win, given the shortcomings in his side’s display, Fletcher’s return to the first-team fold could scarcely have come at a better time.
The cry for Sir Alex Ferguson to bolster his midfield has become a tedious background drone to almost every difficult match in the past couple of seasons. Marouane Fellaini, Moussa Dembele, Javi Martinez, Cheikh Tiote, Mohamed Diame…it seems as if any and all midfield enforcers who have turned in a half-decent performance against the Red Devils in recent months are instantly hailed as the ‘missing link’ in Ferguson’s latest masterplan.
In truth, regardless of whatever steel such players might add to United’s side, it is Fletcher’s impact which could serve them most adroitly in the coming campaign as they look to usurp rivals City from the summit of English football.
Ferguson conceded that his team were “frivolous” in possession against Galatasaray, a comment underlined by statistics showing that their Turkish counterparts enjoyed 52% of the ball as they worked tirelessly to overrun United’s midfield on home turf.
While Carrick and Scholes both displayed flashes of superb distributional play at the heart of the side, they were too often outmanned and outgunned by Felipe Melo and Selcuk Inan, who all-too-readily harried their opponents into conceding possession or committing fouls, and kept the Galatasaray engine ticking over.
With Carrick marshalling the middle in his languid style and Scholes looking to ping the ball around the pitch as early as possible, United needed a foil in the ranks, a dynamo of their own to disrupt their opponents’ rhythm – and it is Fletcher who can best provide this vital cog to Fergie’s new-look machine.
In reality, the Red Devils are scarcely spoilt for choice across midfield: both Tom Cleverley and Anderson were left on the bench for Galatasaray’s visit, whilst the evergreen Ryan Giggs was rested after a fairly intense outing during Saturday’s win over Wigan and the versatile Phil Jones remains sidelined through injury. And that is before you consider Kagawa, the newly-appointed puppet-master of the United side, brought in to forge the link from midfield to attack and finally relieve the pressure on Scholes’ 37-year-old shoulders as United’s creator-in-chief.
But none of them can quite master the same marriage of guile and grit, of effort and effervescence as Fletcher. It is this all-round impact which makes him the perfect complement to the positional shrewdness of Carrick and pass-mastery of Scholes, and earmarks him as potentially one of United’s most important players of the season.
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Whether the Scot can ever fully return to the same redoubtable fitness levels of his earlier career remains to be seen, and after taking such a lengthy leave of absence to fight a condition still shrouded in secrecy by the club, you cannot help but feel that his battle against ill-health remains far from won yet. It would likewise be folly to rush him back to regular first-team action too soon, even with a Premier League clash at Anfield looming large this weekend – precisely the kind of pressure-cooker clash in which he has thrived over the years.
But given the respect he commands from those within the game, you can be sure his long-awaited return would have been heralded by more than the 74,000 crammed into Old Trafford on Tuesday night, who rewarded their man with the biggest Champions League cheer heard on that pitch in almost a year as he jogged calmly back into the fray.
It may have been a pretty drab return to the Champions League; it may have been a forgettable evening for Van Persie and Co. up front. For most United fans, however, Tuesday night will be remembered for one thing above all: Darren Fletcher is back, and frankly, not a moment too soon.
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