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FOOTBALL: FORLAN HERO STANDS UP; Diego scores at last to spare shaky United's embarrassment.

Byline: Steve BATES

IT HAD been so long coming it was no wonder Diego Forlan's first Premiership goal triggered wild celebration and comical confusion in equal measures.

When it has taken 24 games, countless near misses and some not really very close at all, was it any surprise that Forlan's momentous moment was engulfed in humour?

The butt of terrace comics from Manchester to Montevideo, Forlan was just waiting for the goal to silence the cruel jokers.

So the little man with the Alice band hardly knew whether to laugh or cry when his header from Mikael Silvestre's late cross flashed past Peter Enckelman to break Aston Villa's hearts.

And the pounds 7.5million Uruguayan wasn't the only one blinking in disbelief as his header hit the back of Villa's net to end 10 months of torture.

Even Old Trafford's PA announcer refused to believe what he had just seen - and boomed out the name of David Beckham as the United scorer!

Naturally, though, Forlan was delighted - even though he admitted he didn't know what to do when the ball went in. Well, he wouldn't would he?

"I didn't know what to do really because I wasn't sure the ball had gone in. Once I realised it had, I just set off running because I was so happy," said the South American.

"It's gone on so long and it does bother you when you aren't scoring but I have tried not to feel the pressure.

"If I can't score then I just try and help the team but this is what I have been waiting for since I came to United.

"It's just a pity it wasn't the winner and although it was an important goal because we got a point we all consider this to be two points lost." While lamenting a lame performance from his side, Sir Alex Ferguson was happy to rejoice in Forlan's joy and praise the youngster for toughing out a striker's worst nightmare.

"Lesser strikers would have crumbled - it's happened here in the past," said Ferguson.

"But Diego has shown real guts and courage to keep going.

"I'm really delighted for him and so are the rest of the lads. He's shown great perseverance and had four attempts at goal today so he fully deserved the goal he got."

A regular scorer in Argentinian football with Independiente, Forlan hasn't been able to a goal from open play in 35 outings for United.

And that just about sums up Graham Taylor's luck as he battles the odds at Villa Park.

For Forlan's goal prevented United from sliding to a third league defeat.

Trailing to Olaf Mellberg's thundering first-half header, United were a shambles until Forlan struck.

In rampant form in the Champions League, the Premiership is proving more painful, with yet another unsatisfactory day at the office for Ferguson's stars.

Rio Ferdinand came back after missing three games but the record pounds 29million signing looked off the pace and afflicted by the same lethargy as Fergie's other stars.

At least the rest could claim tiredness after the long trip to Athens and back in midweek.

Maybe that's why Laurent Blanc decided to have forty winks while Villa took a lead they fully deserved 10 minutes before the break.

Mellberg's goal should really have made it 2-0 to Villa who squandered a perfect chance to pile on the misery for United even earlier. Teenage striker Stefan Moore, only 19 and making his Premiership debut, will never get a better chance to write his name in the stars if he plays at Old Trafford for another 20 seasons.

The youngster superbly checked his run then darted on to Dion Dublin's clever ball, catching Blanc and Ferdinand too square.

Moore's pace took him face to face with Fabian Barthez.

Maybe it was the sight of the Frenchman daring him to score or the galloping feet of United's recovering defenders pounding in his ears, either way Moore choked. His shot lacked any conviction and the French World Cup winner confirmed his return to form with a wonderful save with his outstretched left leg to deny the rookie striker.

But Villa's anguish didn't last long against a United side groping embarrassingly for a foothold.

Juan Veron was in showboat mode and there was little menace about the United attack.

It added up to huge encouragement for a Villa side quoted at 9-1 to pull off victory at Old Trafford.

So it was with more than just blind optimism that Villa chucked men forward to attack a corner from Mark Kinsella after 35 minutes.

Reward came in the shape of Mellberg charging past Blanc to thump a powerful header beyond Barthez.

While Villa celebrated their first away goal of the league season, United absorbed the wake up call and mounted a mini-fightback.

But with the manpower they're currently missing - Ruud van Nistelrooy, Roy Keane, Nicky Butt plus winger Ryan Giggs who was bizarrely injured in the warm-up - United found it tough against a Villa side who grew in confidence.

Beckham briefly inspired United's flame to flicker, cutting in from the right and clipping the bar with a left-foot effort but there was little else to cheer until Forlan's goal.

Ironically the Uruguayan almost scored an identical goal late in the first half but his header sailed over.

The second half was agony for United fans, especially as news filtered through that Liverpool and Arsenal were struggling.

And Ferguson, who started the day with dreams of a win double, once again had to lower his horizons.

The old never-say-die spirit that has always been United's 12th man still lives on, though, as Villa found to their cost with Forlan's equaliser.

In a rousing finale United could even have snatched victory through Solskjaer - but that would have been rough on Villa.

"We were shoddy and below par and Villa could easily have been 2-0 up," admitted Fergie.

"But sometimes it's important to take something from a game when you aren't doing well."

CAPTION(S):

URU STAR: Uruguayan international Diego Forlan is mobbed by team-mates after (inset) scoring his first goal in open play for United
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:Oct 27, 2002
Words:1022
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