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Jun 9, 2011

Fitness Hargreaves' only failure

If the intent was to avoid fanfare and fulsome tributes, it failed. No matter how low key the announcement appeared and although it was widely expected, it was news nonetheless. The confirmation that Paul Scholes was leaving Manchester United's playing staff generated the paeans of praise that seem to embarrass Oldham's favourite mute.

Ten days earlier, however, United did manage to release a midfielder without undue attention. Timing was a factor: the statement that Owen Hargreaves would depart was made some 90 minutes before a dramatic conclusion to the Premier League season which featured Blackpool's relegation at Old Trafford, while United paraded the trophy. It became a footnote.

The differences between the long-serving local and the Anglo-German-Canadian Welshman are considerable. The countdown to Scholes' exit proceeded over a couple of months, with his valedictory appearance coming against Barcelona while Hargreaves was a lesser-spotted figure, infrequently in the directors' box, let alone on the pitch, even before he officially joined the ranks of the club's ex-players.

Scholes' artistry, modesty and loyalty accounted for his accolades. A man who cost United nothing gave them plenty in a 676-game career. In contrast, Hargreaves made just 26 starts from a four-year spell that, including transfer fee and wages, cost in excess of £30 million.

Scholes remained an influence until the end, a factor in the comeback against Blackburn that clinched the trophy. Hargreaves became a strange hybrid of forgotten figure and unfunny joke, his final two seasons entailing a 30-second cameo against Sunderland and a five-minute outing against Wolves before, inevitably, he departed injured. Scholes' future, on the United coaching staff, is assured; Hargreaves' is uncertain, with his problems seeming both physical and psychological.

Yet the sense of disappointment should not detract from the memory of what a formidable performer Hargreaves was, albeit briefly, for United. In the Champions League-winning campaign of 2008, he played three different positions in the last three rounds: his favoured central midfield role in the quarter-final against Roma, right-back in both encounters with Barcelona and then on the right of midfield when United met Chelsea in Moscow.

His versatility was a consequence of a combination of attributes that no team-mate possessed: Darren Fletcher and Anderson can also offer energy in midfield, while Michael Carrick screens the back four. None, however, could ally defensive discipline with such forceful running. In a country where natural holding midfielders are a rarity, Hargreaves was an exception. He was also more than that.

It explains why neither United nor England have found a suitable alternative. The manner of Barcelona's supremacy in two Champions League finals has been such that it is hard to argue one player would have made a game-changing difference. Yet, if speed, stamina and an intelligent understanding of the game are required to disrupt the Catalans' passing and pressing game, Hargreaves is better equipped than any of his team-mates to try.

The same is true, too, of England's World Cup defeat to Germany. It is not merely a grounding in the Bundesliga that suggests Hargreaves might have kept track of Mesut Ozil rather better than Gareth Barry managed to do. If that was the nadir for the Manchester City midfielder, the fact he has 46 caps, predominantly as a holding midfielder, is a sign of an inability to replace Hargreaves.

Nothing benefits a reputation quite like absentia in defeat, of course, and Hargreaves' standing, which was transformed in England by the 2006 World Cup, remains rooted in the past. A two-year spell, beginning with his exploits in one adopted country's colours, but on another's shores, and culminating in the final months of his first campaign at Old Trafford cemented a status as one of the most efficient players of his generation.

Three years after he effectively faded from the first-team picture, however, it appears the search for a new Hargreaves has been put on hold. Scott Parker, the closest equivalent, has been belated granted a chance in a national team where Steven Gerrard, Jack Wilshere and Barry have been deployed out of position.

At Old Trafford, meanwhile, the priorities appear different: newer, younger defenders, a successor to Edwin van der Sar in goal, a man to accept Scholes' mantle as the creator and, possibly, Dimitar Berbatov's replacement in attack. It is, arguably, only against elite opposition, where no two of Sir Alex Ferguson's central midfielders have formed a long-term partnership and where the selection of a trio is often both enforced and an acknowledgement of inferiority in that department, where Hargreaves has been missed. But on such games are trophies decided.

The need for a newcomer is complicated by the difficulty in locating one. Because, while his many ailments prompted mockery and there had long been a quiet acceptance around Old Trafford that his United career belonged in the past tense, as a defensive central midfielder, Hargreaves had every quality except one: fitness.

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