Buoyant Blackburn ready to spoil Fergie's fun

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LONDON, Nov 8 (Reuters) There is likely to be a toast to the good old days when Alex Ferguson's Manchester United take on Mark Hughes's Blackburn Rovers on Sunday (2030 IST), the first league fixture of the Scot's 22nd year at Old Trafford.

In a week when Ferguson has been feted for his achievements at United, it might be remembered that Hughes's goals played a hefty part in keeping his then-under-fire manager in a job.

Hughes scored twice in the 1990 FA Cup final to give Ferguson his first trophy four years after arriving and another two goals in the Cup Winners Cup final a year later began the club's climb back into the big time.

The striker Ferguson once described as ''a warrior you could trust with your life'' now commands respect as a manager, particularly as Blackburn have been something of a bogey team for their Lancashire neighbours in recent seasons.

United did the double over them last season but it was the other way around in the previous campaign.

Both games were drawn in 2004/05, while Blackburn won two and drew two of the four Ewood Park league meetings before that.

The visitors go into Sunday's Old Trafford clash in buoyant mood, sixth in the standings, unbeaten in eight games in all competitions and only five points behind joint leaders Arsenal and United.

They drew 0-0 with Liverpool last weekend, following earlier draws with Chelsea and Arsenal, and Hughes says those performances are evidence that his players can really compete with the big boys.

''We've now played three of the top four teams and gone unbeaten against them. We play Manchester United next weekend, so hopefully we can complete the set,'' he said.

''Whether we actually get in ourselves (to the Champions League) is open to debate but who's to say we can't sustain this? ''We have a good squad, the best since I have been here and, people tell me, one of the best here for many, many years.'' United, level with Arsenal on 27 points but trailing on goals scored, warmed up in the best possible way by thrashing Dynamo Kiev 4-0 yesterday. The win secured progress to the knockout stages of the Champions League with two games to spare.

Arsenal also eased through with a goalless draw at Slavia Prague where they, like United, were able to rest a few key players ahead of their trip to Reading on Monday night.

Chelsea's run of seven straight victories came to an end with a scrappy goalless draw at Schalke 04 on Tuesday.

But Avram Grant's side will expect to get back to winning ways at home on Sunday against Everton, who they have not lost to home or away for seven years.

There are only three games being played on Saturday and only one of those at the traditional 3pm kick off when Derby County host West Ham United.

Liverpool are at home to Fulham in Saturday's late kickoff (2245 IST) while the weekend's action is kicked off by a (1915 IST) north-east derby when Sunderland host Newcastle United.

REUTERS AB SSC1043

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