United strengthen grip on title; Blackburn Rovers 0 Manchester United 2
Having watched their biggest challengers to the title, Manchester City, slip to a 3-3 draw at home to Sunderland, United travelled to Blackburn Rovers knowing that victory would put them 5 points clear at the top, and give them a huge advantage in pursuit of league title number 20. After last week’s cagey, and somewhat fortuitous 1-0 victory over Fulham, United knew that a much improved performance would be required to win a fixture the reds had only managed to win twice in 11 outings. Having also succumbed to their Lancashire rivals earlier in the season at old Trafford, a very respectful United side lined up, with Ferguson opting to stifle the midfield with Phil Jones, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick forcing Wayne Rooney onto the left of a 3 man attack.
With Rovers languishing near the foot of the table, and United in a scintillating run of 7 successive wins, it was unsurprising the opening stages of the game were dominated by Scholes and Carrick, who orchestrated the United siege upon the Blackburn goal. Javier Hernandez in a somewhat rare starting berth came close twice to justifying his inclusion, firstly by diverting Antonio Valencia’s drilled cross onto the post. The Mexican would have been disappointed with his second opportunity of the night however, latching onto Rooney’s sublime pass but scuffing his left footed shot well wide as United looked poised to strike. For all their possession however, United lacked their usual fluidity, with a very lopsided feel to their attacking play, as Patrice Evra tried in vein to provide genuine width on the left hand side. An ever more frustrated United side continued to run into traffic, as their approach play looked predictable and one dimensional, allowing the impressive Grant Hanley to easily mop up. With half time approaching, United were given two real scares to their title hopes, firstly via Marcus Olsson who let fly with a thunderous half volley from the edge of the box, requiring the acrobatic intervention of the largely untroubled David De Gea. From the resulting corner, the young Spaniard was again called into action, tipping over from Hanley’s header, as United welcomed the half time break and an opportunity to regroup.
Having controlled most of the game, United continued in the same vein in the second half, pressing and probing but lacking the genuine cutting edge required to break down a resilient Blackburn side. Rafael and Antonio Valencia were proving a handful, regularly interchanging down the right hand side, but much of their good work was not capitalised upon, as Rooney and Hernandez both failed to get into goal scoring positions with the required frequency. It was ultimately United’s substitutions on which the game hinged, and the introduction of Danny Welbeck, Ryan Giggs and Ashley Young began to see a jaded Blackburn wilt. A crucial intervention from Rio Ferdinand, denying Yakubu a certain tap in proved pivotal, as just 2 minutes later, with 9 minutes of normal time remaining, the magnificent Valencia surged in from the right, before sending an arrowing shot into the far corner triggering an almighty eruption of relief and delight from the 7000 travelling reds. With the back very much broken, and a vociferous rendition of ‘we shall not be moved’ reverberating throughout Ewood Park, United looked to put Blackburn away. And that they did, on 86 minutes, as Ashley Young capitalised upon a delightful 39 pass move from the reds, before spinning on the edge of the box and rifling home to send United 5 points clear at the top.
There was a certain gravitas about United’s performance, and a feeling of great significance in the grand scheme of the title race, exacerbated by the extravagant double fist pump celebration from Ferguson. United now have the opportunity to go 8 points clear before City travel to the Emirates to face Arsenal, as once again, Ferguson looks to have found the winning formula when it matters the most.
DDG – 7 Two world class saves which kept United in the game.
Rafael – 8 Looks to have finally settled into a top class full back.
Evans – 6 Relatively quiet night, switched off occasionally.
Ferdinand – 7 Magnificent last ditch challenge when Yakubu seemed poised to score.
Evra – 6 Struggled to make in impact on the left.
Valencia – 8 MOTM Two devastating contributions, one to score, and one to assist Young.
Scholes – 6 Controlled the tempo.
Carrick – 6 Few sloppy passes in first half.
Jones – 5 Looked to be unsure of his role.
Rooney – 5 Frustrated by his limited role on the left.
Hernandez – 4 Rightfully subbed after an hour.
Giggs – 7 Immediately gave United extra threat in final third.
Young – 7 Quality impact, should have started the match.
Welbeck – 6 Provided an extra dimension to United’s attacks.