Darren Fletcher the destroyer revels in prolonging City drought

DARREN Fletcher knows Manchester United did their jobs against Manchester City on Wednesday night because that banner is staying exactly where it is.

The timer that flutters off the upper tier of the Stretford End has become one of the symbols of a rivalry between United and City that has always been feisty, but has now become serious. Each year, it ticks round one more figure, signifying another season City have finished empty-handed. Currently it is heading for 34.

Roberto Mancini has vowed to pull it down. Wayne Rooney's injury-time goal in the second leg of their Carling Cup semi-final ensures, for now, it remains.

"They can keep the banner up," declared Fletcher. "It is all part of the banter between the two clubs but it is right because we deserved to go through."

At times over the two legs, it did not look that way. For all Sir Alex Ferguson's claim he would be prepared to risk his youngsters, Rafael Da Silva was the only real novice called upon.

Indeed, the additional match Rio Ferdinand has had tagged on to a three-match suspension for violent conduct for what an FA disciplinary panel termed a "frivolous appeal" purely to let him play on Wednesday was a measure of the determination in United ranks not to lose.

The full outcome of the gamble will only be known once United have totted up their points from four fixtures that start with a trip to Arsenal on Sunday and end at Goodison Park on 20 February, with encounters against Portsmouth and Aston Villa in between. But, as he looks back on a pulsating two-legged affair that ended with Ferguson confirming a record seventh League Cup final appearance, the United manager will probably think it was worthwhile.

"It was a semi-final against our local rivals to get a place at Wembley," said Fletcher. "It was always going to be a massive match but, in big matches, this team rises to the occasion. All you have to do is focus and trust in your team-mates. When you look around that side, you realise what quality we have. I wouldn't want anyone else out there with me."

Fletcher's man-of-the-match performance confirmed his status as one of the most effective midfield schemers in England at present. He may not have the inspiration of Cesc Fabregas, but as a destroyer of opposition teams, he has no peer. The Scotland skipper nearly emerged as the matchwinner too, only for Shay Given to deny him with an incredible save which, ultimately, merely delayed defeat given Rooney scored from the corner that followed.

If Fletcher is now established as a Premier League star, Rooney is working his way up the world list. Soon, only Lionel Messi, Kaka and old team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo will be in front of him. Netting another four-goal salvo might have been beyond him in his role as lone striker in midweek, but the 24-year-old simply found another way to hog the headlines.

"Wayne was fantastic," said Fletcher. "Sometimes it is difficult when you are up front on your own, but he puts in so much work it is incredible. He does the work of two men at times. Maybe he doesn't get as many touches as he would like but he sacrifices himself for the greater good of the team and his goalscoring form this year has been fantastic."

Rooney is now up to 21 for the season, just two behind his best tally and well on the way to the target of 30 Ferguson has set for him. And, for all the gloom that has accompanied the negative headlines about United's financial state, it is a measure of their continued position as a superpower that attention must shift back to the Premier League, then Europe before the Carling Cup crosses their minds again. "Arsenal on Sunday is another huge game," said Fletcher. "But that is what being a Manchester United player is all about. A massive semi-final during the week then a few days later another one in the league."

United have also confirmed the capture of Fulham defender Chris Smalling. The 20-year-old completed his medical with the Old Trafford outfit yesterday and will link up with the Red Devils from July 2010 on a four-year contract. It completes a meteoric rise for the England Under-21 star, who only two years ago was playing non-league football with Maidstone.

Meanwhile, City forward Robinho is returning to his former club Santos in Brazil on a six-month loan deal. "Santos will assume all of the player's contract terms, including wages and bonuses. Robinho will travel to Brazil on Sunday to begin his loan period," City said in a statement.

Robinho, who joined City in 2008 for a British record transfer fee of 32.5million from Real Madrid, is expected to earn substantially lower wages at the Brazilian club.

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