Confident Forlan still destined for the bench

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The Independent Football

"There's only one Sally Gunnell". The Blackburn fans were on form, taunting Diego Forlan as he warmed up at Old Trafford last Saturday, but the days when the Uruguayan striker was a figure of fun at Manchester United are past.

His manager would still probably prefer it if he cut the shoulder-length hair, which makes the 24-year-old look like he might have played guitar with Peter Frampton, but Sir Alex Ferguson would have few other causes for complaint.

Forlan's goal against Panathinaikos, which took Manchester United into the knock-out phase of the Champions' League, was his fifth club goal in just over a month. Before that the statistics were somewhat bleaker: 13 starts, four Premiership goals, half of which had come in last year's victory at Liverpool.

"Never at any time have I thought about leaving this club, even when I wasn't in the side," he said. "I have always been training hard so I would be ready to take my chance when it came along." Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's long-term injury provided that opportunity.

"Age is the important factor because if you buy a young player you are not getting the finished article," said Ferguson, whose fee of £7.5m for Forlan would now be considered over the odds. "We had sold Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham had left but how do you know when a striker will break through? Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was 24 when I bought him and he developed fantastically well. Diego will do the same."

The irony is that, like Solskjaer, Forlan will be a prime candidate for the bench on big match days. For Sunday's keenly anticipated encounter at Chelsea, the odds must be that Ferguson will stick with using Ruud van Nistelrooy as the lone striker with Ryan Giggs tucked in behind him.

Forlan tried to be optimistic. "My confidence is building with the number of games I play. I have always said that, if I get a run and get chances, things could start happening. Now I have got to wait and see what the manager decides for Sunday.

"That is a very important game. The three of us - Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United - have broken away. I have watched Chelsea and seen how well they have been playing. They have bought a lot of players and you might think that makes it difficult for them to gel quickly but they have because they are top-quality players. You are not talking of kids. They are very well equipped."

There is something shackled and laboured about Manchester United these days. There has been little swagger in their play. Nevertheless, they have qualified from the first Champions' League group stage for the third year running.

Next month's game against Stuttgart, who suddenly seem a more formidable proposition than even Bayern Munich, will decide who tops the group. The group winners would avoid the group winners, who include Milan, Juventus and probably Real Madrid but, as Ferguson remarked, avoiding Europe's élite will be hard.