x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Park Ji-sung is Manchester United's big-game player

The South Korean missed out on the 2008 Champions League final but the midfielder’s energy and versatility make him a certain choice for tonight’s match against Chelsea.

Park Ji-sung made his first appearance of 2011 for Manchester United on Saturday at West Ham.
Park Ji-sung made his first appearance of 2011 for Manchester United on Saturday at West Ham.

It is safe to say that the 2008 Champions League final will be a constant reference point at Stamford Bridge tonight. As the footage from Moscow is replayed, the costly inability of John Terry and Nicolas Anelka to score from 12 yards should prove impossible to ignore.

Yet Chelsea's players do not have a monopoly on disappointment when they look back three years.

There are no such crushing images to remind Park Ji-sung of his anguish.

It was the result of managerial choice, rather than faulty penalty-taking, as a man who had played every minute of the quarter-final and semi-final ties was not even named on the bench.

Sir Alex Ferguson has subsequently said: "It was a terrible decision to have to take. In many ways it was the hardest decision I've ever had to make because Ji-sung had played such a great part in the previous games against Roma and Barcelona." It was a compliment, if not consolation.

Twelve months later, Park became the first Asian to appear in a Champions League final. Once again, however, it was no occasion for personal celebrations: Barcelona beat Manchester United 2-0. Now the quest to erase Moscow from the memory begins again in earnest.

Now it is impossible to envisage a selection that does not include the 30-year-old. "One of the most underrated players in the game," as Ferguson has described him, has undergone a shift in status. A first choice has the welcome tag of a big-game player.

This is a player who has rarely proved prolific, but whose goals tend to be reserved for the major occasions.

Six seasons at Old Trafford have only brought 21, but four have come against Arsenal alone. Chelsea, Liverpool and AC Milan are others to concede to the South Korean.

Yet his true value may lie elsewhere. As befits a footballer with the nickname "three lungs", his energy levels mean that Park is a winger who can double up as the first line of defence. It explains why he figures particularly often away from home, often shielding his friend Patrice Evra on the left flank.

Ferguson appreciates his versatility, however. Park made a belated first appearance of 2011 at West Ham United on Saturday, delayed by first the Asian Cup and then a hamstring injury, as an advanced central midfielder. It is a role he could fulfil again today, buzzing around the more statuesque Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes.

Or, should Anderson be fit and two games in four days seem too much for Ryan Giggs's 37-year-old legs, the more familiar beat on the left wing may beckon.

The eager worker doubles up as lucky mascot. Park is unbeaten in United's colours this season (as, indeed, are Anderson and Rio Ferdinand) and the thought occurred that the back-to-back defeats at Stamford Bridge and Anfield last month might have been averted had he been available.

They were games when Ferguson's men, shorn of several of their most industrious midfielders, were outworked in the centre of the pitch.

It accounts for differing perceptions of Park: in England, he may have gone under appreciated, derided as a marketing tool when out of form and celebrated in song largely because the supporters find one particular chorus amusing. The crowd-pleasers and the warriors tend to be more popular.

In his native South Korea, however, he is a national icon, a more clean-cut Wayne Rooney.

Three years ago, admiration was merged with surprise and sympathy. Now that is unnecessary: should United reach Wembley in the Champions League, their masses of fans in Seoul and Suwon are unlikely to be heartbroken again.

sports@thenational.ae

10.45pm, Aljazeera Sport + 3

Chelsea v Manchester United

Key Battle

Jose Bosingwa v Nani

Injuries have hindered Bosingwa’s Chelsea career since his £16.3 million (Dh96.2m) move from Porto in 2008. On song, the right-back, below, provides an excellent attacking option and has the pace to contain Nani. United’s winger probably has the best dribbling ability of any player tonight and that could be a game breaker.

Tactics

In their two previous league trips to Stamford Bridge, United will feel they played the better football without getting the results – they lost both times. Such is the way in two-legged games, expect both managers to be cautious. Ironically, a 0-0 draw suits Chelsea better than United, because of the away goal rule.

Previous meetings

This is the first European meeting between the two since the 2008 final in Moscow, which United won on penalties. Chelsea are unbeaten in their last 10 home meetings against United.

Probable line-ups

Chelsea (4-3-3) Cech; Bosingwa, Ivanovic, Terry, Cole; Essien, Lampard, Ramires; Malouda, Drogba, Torres.
Man Utd (4-3-3) Van der Sar; Fabio, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Scholes, Park; Giggs, Nani, Rooney.

Facts

• Both teams are each likely to field seven players who started the final three years ago.
• Despite the prospect of caution, there have been just two 0-0 draws between the teams in 33 matches.