Berbatov battles to win Old Trafford's affection

Manchester United 2 Blackburn Rovers 0
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The Independent Football

If Tony Blair said his job would be complete when the Labour Party learned to love Peter Mandelson, then perhaps Sir Alex Ferguson can finally walk away from Old Trafford when they swoon at Dimitar Berbatov's feet.

He has everything required to become what used to be known as a terrace hero. The enigmatic statements to the media, the elegance and the vision and even the smoking suggest a cool that Old Trafford lost with Eric Cantona's retirement.

And yet although the Stretford End stood to applaud him for the goal that broke Blackburn Rover's bloody-minded resistance, they do not sing his name in the way that the stadium bellowed a long deep chant of "Ruuuuud" when Van Nistelrooy was in his pomp.

"I think he's found it a little difficult to produce his very, very best – the sort of form he showed at Tottenham after a season," reflected the Blackburn manager, Sam Allardyce, afterwards.

"This is a big season for him. Playing for Manchester United is not an easy thing to do. There is no hiding; no easy games and there's no doing anything other than winning games of football. And I think he has found it, as many other players have in the past, a little difficult to adjust. But he has got outstanding ability and, as time goes on, you will find out whether he is good enough – because he certainly was today."

Sunday at Stamford Bridge would be a fine time for Berbatov to demonstrate that talent. One reason, perhaps, why the Bulgarian has not been taken to the red heart of Manchester is that he has rarely scored in high-profile encounters.

Only one of his 13 league goals has come against United's title rivals and, by the time he found the net against Luiz Felipe Scolari's fast-unravelling Chelsea in January, United were already two up with three minutes left. The remaining dozen have come against the three teams who were relegated in May, plus Stoke, Bolton, Wigan, Fulham – and Tottenham.

It was at White Hart Lane where United delivered their single command performance of the season and they will return to London on Sunday roughly where they were last November, a few points behind Chelsea, the direction of their season still to be decided. Then, it was their defence, marshalled by Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, that underpinned the third straight title.

Neither may play on Sunday. Ferdinand's back pain, which has given him persistent trouble all season, was reported to have flared up again while the one-time England manager, Graham Taylor, suggested that with his 31st birthday approaching on Saturday, Ferdinand's legs have started to fail him. Manchester United's former right-back, Paul Parker, also warned Ferdinand publicly that "while a lot has been made of his back injury, it wasn't an injury that tried to make him scoop the ball arrogantly over Craig Bellamy in the Manchester derby. I worry he is getting close to David Beckham territory where image is more important than performance."

His deputies, Wes Brown and Jonny Evans, had stress-free evenings. Although most will regret the passing of a sun-dappled October, after a month that has seen them face Chelsea, Arsenal and now Manchester United, Allardyce would welcome November's bitter winds.

Under Mark Hughes, Blackburn earned a reputation for thriving against the big four, which was swiftly jettisoned under Paul Ince's brief stewardship and which Allardyce has found difficult to recapture. The 11 matches against the Premier League's leading clubs since Hughes left for Manchester City have brought 11 defeats and a combined scoreline of 36-4.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar, O'Shea, Brown, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Anderson, Nani (Obertan, 64); Rooney, Berbatov (Owen, 79) Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Fletcher, Scholes, F Da Silva, De Laet.

Blackburn Rovers (4-1-4-1): Robinson; Chimbonda, Samba, Nelsen, Givet; N'Zonzi; Emerton, Dunn (McCarthy, 83), Andrews (Pedersen, 58), Diouf; Di Santo (Kalinic, 76) Substitutes not used: Brown (gk), Grella, Salgado, Hoilett.

Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).

Booked: Blackburn Chimbonda, Emerton.

Man of the match: Berbatov.

Attendance: 74,658