Football: United draw no comfort from shyness

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The Independent Online
Manchester United have long been the biggest draw in football, but five in succession is taking it a bit far, and Alex Ferguson is not alone in sensing another championship slipping away.

United are unbeaten in 11 Premier League games, but have been held in each of the last five, and Ferguson is again wearing that fearful, hangdog expression which became so familiar last season when his team were tossing away the title.

Kenny Dalglish could give anyone lessons when it comes to a miserable mien, but that economical mouth has been seen turning upwards at the edges of late. And with good reason.

Exactly 12 months into his revivalist managership of Blackburn Rovers, Dalglish is well ahead of schedule, and what was to have been a season of consolidation promises, much, much more.

One point from Saturday's goalless stalemate with United was enough to take barnstorming Blackburn back to the top of the League, and the home team could afford to be happier with the draw.

If Dalglish is ahead of schedule, Ferguson is well behind his. Much has been made of Blackburn's spending, but United's outlay has been second to none in recent years, and Ferguson should have bought the club the title they crave before now.

The supporters are forever being assured that it is on the horizon but, like the skyline, it never comes any closer. It is always there, just out of reach.

From the outset, it was difficult to see how United were going to improve on last season's performance. They continued to rely on the same group of players, with the same obvious weakness.

The title was lost for the lack of a consistent scorer yet here we are, 12 months on, with deja vu when another shot-shy afternoon leaves United with a meagre 18 goals to show for their last 21 games.

Ferguson accepts that his team's strike rate is not enough for championship aspirants. It was 'a bit of a worry' that they were not 'putting the ball in the onion bag' he said quaintly.

'We're not far away - not playing badly - but we can't afford to keep drawing games. It's preventing us from making an impact. We've managed to produce some good, composed football but we do need to do better in the box.'

Same old story. The fault is easy to identify, much harder to remedy. At the age of nearly 29, Mark Hughes is unlikely suddenly to double his output, from 20 to 40 goals a season, and the only summer signing of any consequence, Dion Dublin, is no Alan Shearer.

With Shearer to tuck away an acceptable proportion of their chances, United would have been favourites to win the League. Without him, they will do well to match last season's second place.

Blackburn were criticised for paying pounds 3.3m for the striker in question, but will be able to double their money at the very least if he continues to score at his present rate, and Italian interest hardens.

Not that Rovers would contemplate selling. 'Uncle' Jack Walker, as Dalglish has taken to calling him, has his beadies fixed firmly on The Prize, and would sooner buy again than sell.

The fortune Walker is putting up is the envy of every club in the country, and Dalglish is quick to acknowledge the debt of gratitude owed to this most benevolent of patrons. 'Without Uncle Jack,' he said, 'nothing would have been possible.'

United, certainly, are jealous, their fans taunting Shearer, and others, as 'greedy bastards', and telling them: 'You're only here for the money.' Rich indeed. An absolute pearler, this, in terms of pot calling kettle black.

If the displaced Stretford Enders needed to extract the you- know-what, Saturday's attendance offered a more legitimate target. At 20,305 it was comfortably Blackburn's best of the season, but not a full house. This after putting seven past Norwich City in their previous home game.

They have yet to fill Ewood to its modest 20,337 capacity, which is a shame in such exciting, expansionist times. 'Uncle Jack' and a pleasingly adventurous team deserve better.

United? Ryan Giggs might have scored twice before half-time, but allowed Bobby Mimms to make an improvised save, then volleyed wastefully over at close range.

United were better served in defence where the rugged attentions of Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce denied Shearer a single strike at goal. Instead, it was Stuart Ripley and Mike Newell, both bright and lively, who went tantalisingly close for Blackburn.

A couple of decent chances apiece; a fair result. The Blackburn-Norwich rematch in the Coca-Cola Cup on Wednesday promises rather more. On second thoughts, though, Sod's Law points to another nil-nil.

Blackburn Rovers: Mimms; May, Wright, Sherwood, Hendry, Moran, Ripley (Wegerle, 88), Cowans, Shearer, Newell, Wilcox. Substitutes not used: Marker, Collier (gk).

Manchester United: Schmeichel; Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Ferguson (Kanchelskis, 75), Pallister, Blackmore, Ince, McClair, Hughes, Giggs. Substitutes not used: Webb, Walsh (gk).

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).

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