When Sir Alex Ferguson decided he’d had enough of what he saw as the David Beckham circus, and packed the world’s most iconic player off to Real Madrid, there seemed decent reason.
He had a young Darren Fletcher emerging to take over on the right of midfield. He also had an even younger Cristiano Ronaldo just arriving at Old Trafford.
Ronaldo might have blossomed from show pony to thoroughbred, but Fletcher was always perceived as not much better than a workhorse. Six years later and Ronaldo has moved on, but Fletcher is still pulling the plough in midfield, only doing it in style.
For a minute or two forget all the drama of Sunday’s Manchester derby, and United’s breathtaking 4-3 win (it might take longer, actually, because there was so much drama). Never mind about rows over time keeping, about Craig Bellamy slapping a fan for running on the pitch, about Michael Owen scoring his first Premier League goal at Old Trafford with the sort of timing that suggests he’d borrowed Beckham’s script writer for a weekend.
Have a look at the goals for column and see who scored two of the most crucial strikes United will ever have. Correct. That man Fletcher.
The Scot has slowly established himself as the great unsung hero of Fergie’s side. Ronaldo usurped him as a wide man, then Michael Carrick arrived for Ã‚Â£18.6million to take over holding midfield duties. Fletcher has kept going, improving steadily, and become the man Fergie picks every time there’s a big game.
Was he the player United most missed in last season’s Champions League final? Unquestionably.
Every team has one of those players. As a bit of ancient history, I grew up a West Ham fan when Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst were the big stars. But there was a midfielder (or inside forward, as we called them then) called Ronnie Boyce. He was known as “ticker”, because when he played well the whole side functioned like a well oiled clock.
Chelsea’s equivalent is Michael Essien, who you won’t find mentioned in the reports of yesterday’s 3-0 drubbing of Tottenham. But while Didier Drogba was marauding in the front line it was the Ghanaian midfielder who was dominating the key areas of the match. It was no coincidence that Chelsea’s season turned round last year only when he returned from a serious knee injury, and he’s one of the reasons why they are 2.36 title favourites now.
There’s never been much secret about Liverpool’s driving force. That man Steven Gerrard. You can’t call him an unsung hero. But Rafa Benitez has got his team starting to roll after a shaky start and much of that is due to the surprise improvement by Brazilian Lucas Leiva.
He was described by Anfield fans last year as the worst player ever to wear their red shirt. Benitez stuck with him, and he was excellent again in Saturday night’s 3-2 win at West Ham. Mind you it does help having Fernando Torres to get the goals too! Now third, Liverpool are 2.18 to be there or higher at the end of the season and are worth backing at odds against while you can.
Arsenal at 2.02 are a shorter price for the top three, no doubt with the enthusiasm from a 4-0 romp over Wigan. But for all the quality of Cesc Fabregas they still don’t have a man in midfield to do the grubby stuff because at 22 Alexandre Song is still a baby.
Of the clubs hoping to break up that top four, Gareth Barry does the job superbly for Manchester City, but Wilson Palacios is a fraction short of the real top class at Tottenham. That’s why Harry Redknapp wanted to sign Nigel Reo-Coker in the summer and may get his chance again in January after the player’s spectacular fall-out with Martin O’Neill last week.
Villa actually need Reo-Coker’s energy now Barry’s passing quality has gone, so O’Neill will have to patch the row up despite a 2-0 win over Portsmouth. He’ll probably play against Cardiff in the Carling Cup on Wednesday, where Villa are 1.52 favourites to win.
At the other end of the table Birmingham’s shrewdest signing of the summer was not Christian Benitez, the Ecuador international who starred in their 1-0 win at Hull, but Barry Ferguson. Rescued from his disgrace with Scotland, he’s pulling strings and will be a key figure in keeping Alex McLeish’s side in the Premier League. Birmingham are 3.25 to be relegated, and even at that price it’s a safe one to lay.
I also fancy Burnley’s chances of staying up – they are an even better price to lay at 2.56. And that’s not because of David Nugent scoring goals but because of another unsung midfield worker, Graham Alexander. He’ll be 38 next month but is as fit as a fiddle and protects his back four brilliantly. He also slotted home a quality penalty in Burnley’s 3-1 win over Sunderland.
Meanwhile Gary Megson was bemoaning how much he missed Kevin Nolan after scrambling a lucky point in a 1-1 draw at home to Stoke. That’s a clue that Bolton at 5.3 could be the unexpected side that drops into the bottom three.
Fans love the show ponies and the thoroughbreds. Their teams need the work horses.
Reproduced with permission from betting.betfair.com. Ã‚Â© The Sporting Exchange Limited
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