Van Nistelrooy's United place in doubt

Manchester United 0 Blackburn Rovers 0
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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson rarely admits to a mistake, but this morning he might wish he had advised Mark Hughes differently. He was too young to be in the part-time world of international football, was the gist, and he should get into club management.

Hughes duly followed his mentor's advice, took over at Blackburn Rovers last autumn, and by way of a thank you, finished Manchester United's already tenuous hope of catching Chelsea at the top of the Premiership. Thanks Mark, you can go elsewhere next time you need guidance.

In reality, Ferguson is probably taking quiet satisfaction in the job Hughes is doing. The red knight says he never had his former striker down as a manager but since he took over at Ewood Park, Hughes has dragged Blackburn out of the relegation places and into the FA Cup semi-finals. Rovers may not be pretty, but they are pretty difficult to defeat.

As United found to their cost. They came up against Brad Friedel, Andy Todd and Ryan Nelsen at the peak of their form and, even when they managed to get past that lot the post was equally resolute, beating out shots from Wayne Rooney and Roy Keane. Add a goal-line clearance from Morten Gamst Pedersen and you could put this down as one of those days for United, but this was a game where home bluster petered out and Blackburn deserved their point.

That made it five from a four-game run against Everton, Liverpool, Arsenal and United in which they have conceded only one goal.

"Teams know they have to perform well against us otherwise they won't get a result," Hughes said. "We're a very difficult side to beat at the moment, resolute and with a great work ethic. Defensively we're as good as anyone."

Certainly they were in this game, although they were aided by the wretched form of Ruud van Nistelrooy, whose first touch had the precision of a wrecking ball and who had Old Trafford baying for the introduction of Alan Smith before Ferguson bowed to the inevitable after 63 minutes. In the programme Ferguson wrote that several players were on a warning, dwelling on the "woeful" finishing in particular. He did not name the guilty but Van Nistelrooy must be right up there because it is now seven goalless games for United since he returned from injury and he has got only four in the Premiership all season.

Hughes, of course, suffered droughts when he led United's attack - "Too many" was his instant response - and he immediately espoused the creed of the strikers' union. "It's difficult when you have been out injured," he said. "Ruud's record speaks for itself and it's only a matter of time before he gets back to the level where he was before his injury. He's a first-class striker, one of the best in the world, and quality like that doesn't go away."

At the moment that quality is an elusive commodity and it will be interesting to see which team Ferguson picks at Norwich next Saturday in what will be a dress rehearsal for the FA Cup semi-finals.

One thing is certain, though, in that changes will be made and Van Nistelrooy may not feature in his plans. "It will be a different team next week," Ferguson said. "Louis Saha is back in training [today] and Alan Smith needs a game, so I have some big decisions to make."

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Howard; G Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, O'Shea; Ronaldo, Scholes, Fortune, Giggs (Keane, 6); Rooney; Van Nistelrooy (Smith, 63). Substitutes not used: Carroll (gk), Brown, P Neville.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-1-1): Friedel; Neill, Todd, Nelsen, Matteo; Thompson, Flitcroft, Mokoena (Emerton, 68), Reid; Pedersen (Gallagher, 78); Stead. Substitutes not used: Enckelman (gk), Amoruso, Kerimoglu.

Referee: M Riley (W Yorks)

Booked: Man Utd G Neville, Keane, Smith. Blackburn Stead, Nelsen

Man of the match: Friedel.

Attendance: 67,939.