Hughes the prodigal slams door on mentor Ferguson

Manchester United 0 - Blackburn Rovers 0
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The Independent Football

Mark Hughes was just the sort of footballer Sir Alex Ferguson appreciates most. Strong and brave, he spearheaded the Manchester United attack for 472 matches, winning two championships, three FA Cups and the European Cup-Winners' Cup. Then he came along as a manager yesterday and effectively ended his former club's chances of winning the title this season.

And how Ferguson needed a player just like him. The United attack, in which Ruud van Nistelrooy was spectacularly ineffective, roared at the start but by the end had been reduced to barely a whimper, and like Michael Owen in midweek you suspected they could have played for 24 hours and not have scored.

Blackburn rode their luck - United hit the post twice and had another effort cleared off the line in the first half - but the longer the game went on the more secure they looked and it would have been a harsh critic that denied them a point that pushes them nearer to Premiership safety. United, now in third place, will not have to look far to find their harshest critic.

"Forget about Chelsea, that's for sure," Ferguson said. "You don't win the championship with performances like that. We now have to concentrate on getting second place. That's what matters."

In the programme he was equally dismissive. "We simply can't afford to feel that we're in some kind of comfort zone, or, with the championship looking out of reach and Europe gone for another year, that there is nothing left really worth striving for."

His team hardly answered his call for a bravura performance, none less than Van Nistelrooy, whose first touch is a lottery at the moment and who is going through an unprecedented fallow period. A striker who has a record of 122 goals in his 156 starts for United, he has not scored in the Premiership since 27 November. Not for nothing were the home supporters chanting for Alan Smith before the Dutch striker was substituted after 63 minutes.

With Ryan Giggs pulling his hamstring and almost certainly out of the FA Cup semi-final against Newcastle in a fortnight's time, it could hardly have been a more disappointing day for United.

That was a surprise because in the first half United provided everything but a goal. Blackburn ought to have taken the lead after 13 minutes when Steven Reid's shot was deflected by Quinton Fortune and Tim Howard did well to get any part of his body behind it. Even so, the ball bounced invitingly six yards out and Andy Todd will still be kicking himself for putting his shot over the bar.

This was an exception to the red rule, however, and United could have reached the interval with a substantial lead but for Brad Friedel and bad luck. Friedel's first save was a spectacular dive to his right to deny Wayne Rooney's header after two minutes. He made an even more unlikely stop when he blocked Mikaël Silvestre's point-blank header from Paul Scholes' free-kick. He also did well to block a shot from Cristiano Ronaldo just before the interval.

When Blackburn's keeper was beaten, the post came to his rescue. Rooney thundered a 25-yard shot against the upright after 25 minutes and then Roy Keane hit the same post 14 minutes later after a Rooney shot had been cleared to the United captain.

Could anything else deny the home side? It could. When Friedel and the post could not combine to deny them after 40 minutes, Morten Gamst Pedersen appeared on the line to clear Silvestre's header.

"Our first half was excellent," Ferguson said, "and half-time came at the wrong time for us." That was a considerable understatement because United got steadily worse and it was a measure of their frustration that both Smith and Keane were booked for wild challenges.

They were frustrated, and Hughes quietly oozed satisfaction. "In the last 10 minutes we came on strong again and possibly we could have nicked it," he said. "But maybe that was wishing too far."

The day was summed up by a cameo. A dwindling crowd in the Stretford End could find nothing to cheer about as the players left the pitch, and instead chanted what seemed most appropriate. "Hughesy, Hughesy," they shouted.