Darren Fletcher believes Manchester United can claim an important psychological edge over Chelsea with a win in Sunday’s showdown between the Premier League’s top two.
But the Scotland midfielder, who returned to action in Tuesday’s 3-3 draw with CSKA Moscow after a month out with an ankle injury, insists the title race will remain wide open, regardless of the outcome at Stamford Bridge, where United have not won in seven years.
“Sunday is a massive game. Games against Chelsea always are,” Fletcher said.
“It is not going to be make-or-break who wins the league by any means, although it is an important benchmark.
“Maybe psychologically it might have an effect. But Chelsea are a top-class side and we will respect them.”
Fletcher will expect to start at Chelsea given the importance the United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, attaches to his defensive qualities, which were badly missed as United went down to a 2-0 defeat at Liverpool last month.
Even once-sceptical fans have come to recognise what Fletcher brings to the United mix although he insists he is not getting carried away with his growing reputation as a player for the big occasion.
“I take the compliments with a pinch of salt,” he said. “I enjoy these matches as much as anyone and I put pressure on myself to perform more than anyone does.
“The challenge of playing against the top-class players that Chelsea have is one I look forward to and I will be doing my best to win the match. But I am not going to make-or-break games like this.”
Fletcher admitted that his latest lay-off had taken its toll on his match sharpness.
“It is nice to get back into the team and get 90 minutes under my belt because I have not played for a while,” he said.
“I felt fine, which was the most important thing, although I was not 100 percent with my touch and awareness on the pitch. But the game will help and, if selected, I should feel the benefit on Sunday.”
United left-back Patrice Evra meanwhile is determined to steer clear of controversy as he seeks to claim bragging rights over Chelsea strike duo, Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba, two of his best friends in football.
Evra was banned for four matches after a post-match altercation with a Chelsea groundsman in April 2008 and still feels that he was treated harshly over an incident he insists he did not provoke.
“It is unfortunate that when I play against Chelsea, something always seems to happen,” the France defender said. “First it was the ground-staff, then last year I had a bit of an argument with Michael Ballack. This year I have to make sure nothing happens because we need to get a result.”
Evra regards Chelsea as the main threat to United’s hopes of claiming a fourth consecutive Premier League title, particularly now that Drogba and Anelka are proving they can play together.
“I am not scared of them but I respect them and they are the most dangerous rivals,” he said. “I said it last year and the year before and I think it this season as well.
“Both Drogba and Anelka are good friends of mine. And I know they are both great players.
“All the defenders need to focus because keeping a clean sheet will be the key to winning this game.
“We need to be strong because Drogba and Anelka are two big strikers. They are both so quick and strong, although I do feel we have enough quality to do our jobs.”
Tuesday’s Champions League clash, in which United had to recover from a 3-1 deficit to claim a draw with a stoppage-time equalisier, underlined the defensive shakiness that has characterised the champions’ performances this season, and Evra admits an improvement is required.
“If you concede three goals at home, you can hardly say it has been a good performance from the defenders,” he reflected.
“We did well to come back, as we did against Manchester City. But we need to make sure we don’t concede three goals on Sunday because then it won’t be easy to get back.”
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