Manchester United cruised into a third Champions League final in four seasons with a 6-1 aggregate victory over Schalke 04 and aside from the jubilation over reaching another final, the performance of Darron Gibson and the return of Darren Fletcher should boost Sir Alex Ferguson ahead of this weekend’s crunch Premier League meeting with Chelsea and the impending date with Barcelona.
Fletcher returned to the United side after illness struck the Scotland captain, forcing him out of action since March 6’s 3-1 defeat by Liverpool, 12 games ago. In that time United have beaten Chelsea in the European Cup and Arsenal in the FA Cup, but lost in the same competition to Manchester City and to the Gunners in the Premier League last weekend. What difference Fletcher’s presence could have made in those defeats is merely conjecture but having played in December’s 1-0 victory over Arsenal and February’s 2-1 victory over City, it seems likely he would have made the starting XI. Having missed the last two Champions League finals United have participated in – the first in 2008 after being left on the bench, the second in 2009 through suspension – Fletcher’s fitness may threaten his involvement a third time, having just four games and 23 days to prove his recovery is complete.
Should Fletcher not reach Wembley, a vacancy in midfield will arise. Gibson may not be the beneficiary – there is still Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs, Anderson and Paul Scholes ahead of the No 28 – but his display against Schalke has likely moved him up in Ferguson’s estimation. Gibson’s assist for Antonio Valencia’s opening goal was not dissimilar from Andres Iniesta’s pass for Pedro 24 hours earlier – a defence-splitting through ball to release an advancing winger for a crucial strike, one that virtually confirmed the scorer’s team in the final. Gibson then gave United further comfort with a goal of his own, a blast from the edge of the penalty area that Manuel Neuer should have stopped, but for the ferocity the Republic of Ireland international imparted on the ball. The midfielder’s shooting ability is vaunted but it was only his second United goal of the season, the first coming against Scunthorpe United in September’s Carling Cup match, and that has not been down to a lack of opportunity, having made 19 appearances for his club before Wednesday’s stroll past Schalke 04.
At 23, Gibson has time to grow into United’s midfield and the final on May 28 may come too soon for a player with less than 60 games for the Red Devils to his name – Gibson may not even feature against Chelsea on Sunday. Fletcher’s seniority makes him a better bet to face Carlo Ancelotti’s side at Old Trafford and, tactically, the Scot may be more useful against both the Premier League champions and Barcelona than the Irishman. The stamina of Fletcher could make a valuable weapon against Lionel Messi and co as the battle for the European Cup rages in midfield, and, as the form of Gibson and the return of Fletcher show, United have more difficult decisions ahead.