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May 11, 2011

Fergie offers Fletcher Wembley lifeline

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson will give "big-game player" Darren Fletcher a chance to prove his fitness in time for the Champions League final as the midfielder bids to avoid a repeat of his 2009 heartache.

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Fletcher, 27, missed out on playing Barcelona in the 2009 final in Rome after he was sent off in United's semi-final second leg victory over Arsenal and the Scot could only watch from the stands as his team-mates were comprehensively beaten by the Catalans.

Ferguson bemoaned the Scotland captain's absence after the game, insisting that United would have had a better chance of shackling Barca's danger men with Fletcher in the team.

"I thought before the game it [Fletcher's absence] may have been a problem," Ferguson said after the final. "I knew it might count against us because he is a big-game player and he was a big loss. It's difficult to say how big and they had players missing too but it showed for us."

Fletcher was also an unused substitute in the 2008 triumph over Chelsea in Moscow and despite becoming an integral part of United's midfield in the intervening years, it appears he faces another Champions League final disappointment.

The Scot has only just returned from a debilitating virus that kept him out for two months and he has played just 20 minutes of competitive football since March 6, missing 15 matches in the process.

Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs and Park Ji-Sung have been Ferguson's preferred midfielders in big games recently, but the United boss has offered Fletcher a glimmer of hope of being involved at Wembley on May 28.

"Darren has put the weight back on and is back in training, but he has a bit to do yet," Ferguson said. "But, as far as the final is concerned, there is almost three weeks to achieve that. If he does reach the target, it will be a big boost to us as we all know he is big-game player.

"The 20 minutes he got against Schalke last week was certainly a step forward. His training, in terms of sharpness for such an important game, will be stepped up now. We have the Blackburn and Blackpool matches plus Gary Neville's testimonial, so there is game-time there to help him."

Fletcher admitted the past couple of months have been frustrating for him and revealed just how damaging the mystery illness was.

"It was just a bad virus, one of those things you can't really prepare for," he said. "But I hadn't foreseen the weight loss that came with it and that was the real problem. I couldn't come back into training until I'd put a good bit of that back on.

"Instead of two weeks, it ended up being more like five, but I'm feeling much better now. Often when you are injured you still come to the training ground every day - you're in the gym, doing your rehabilitation and you're seeing the lads. With this virus I didn't feel part of it at all."

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