Blackburn 0-2 Man United: Daily Mirror match report
Published 21:56 02/04/12 By David McDonnell
They left it late, in keeping with their nature, but Manchester United remain on the cusp of a 20th league title.
City boss Roberto Mancini had predicted United would draw but his forecast, like his attempt at mind games, proved hopeless as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side established a five-point lead at the top of the table.
Antonio Valencia has arguably been United’s player of the season and it was perhaps fitting it was he who plundered the 81st-minute goal that nudged them closer to a second successive title win.
Valencia turned provider for substitute Ashley Young five minutes later, the United winger scoring with a brutally-executed shot which must have felt like a dagger to the hearts of City’s dejected fans.
By the time City next play, at Arsenal in the late kick-off on Sunday, they are likely to be eight points adrift of United, who are expected to swat aside Queens Park Rangers at Old Trafford earlier that day.
Mancini has already declared such a gap would be too big for his side to bridge and the towel is poised to be thrown in from the City corner following United’s seventh straight Premier League win.
After QPR, United’s next two games are against two further bottom-six sides in Wigan and Aston Villa, before Ferguson’s men host Everton, who have not won at Old Trafford since 1992.
With such an obliging fixture programme for United, the best City can surely hope for is second spot and the inevitable inquest that will leave Mancini vulnerable to the sack with his side having been in pole position for so long.
A 10-point swing in the space of a month tells the full extent of City’s dramatic demise and United’s ruthless consistency as the title race has entered the home straight and the pressure has intensified.
On March 3, City held a five-point lead over their neighbours and title rivals, but have seen that disappear in a blur and been left floundering as United have overtaken them and disappeared over the horizon in a cloud of dust.
City need a collapse of epic proportions from United to salvage a title that for so long looked to be theirs but now looks to be staying in residence at the Old Trafford trophy room for another season.
Despite last night’s scoreline, United were made to toil for their hard-fought win, despite dominating possession, keeper David de Gea coming to their rescue with a trio of world-class with the score at 0-0.
United, whose 7,000-strong away support broke into an early rendition of ‘City’s cracking up’ from the Darwen End, found their rhythm and tempo immediately, laying siege to the Rovers goal.
With United dictating the pace of the game and pushing Rovers back for long periods, their only frustration was their failure to turn their dominance into the hard currency of a goal.
Despite United stacking up the missed chances, it was Blackburn who ended the first-half with a flourish, de Gea continuing his impressive recent form with two vital saves in the space of a minute.
The first came from a looping long-range effort from Marcus Olsson, which de Gea managed to turn away, the second a reflex stop from a Grant Hanley header after United had failed to clear a corner.
Wayne Rooney, deployed out on the left of a 4-3-3 formation, was not as involved as he would have liked had he played in his favoured position through the middle as an out-and-out striker.
With 17 goals in his last 17 appearances for United, Ferguson’s decision to shunt Rooney out wide was a curious one, which deprived the visitors of their leading striker in his most effective role.
Rooney, desperate to make something happen, cut inside in the 52nd minute before scooping a shot high and wide, then saw a curling free-kick parried by Paul Robinson three minutes later.
Morten Gamst Pedersen forced another fine save from de Gea in the 61st minute, then had the ball in the net moments later, only for it to be disallowed. TV Replays showed the ball was clearly out of play when Steven Nzonzi had crossed it.
Rio Ferdinand produced a vital tackle to deny Yakubu with 13 minutes remaining after a swift, incisive move involving Pedersen and Martin Olsson almost put the Rovers striker through on goal.
But Ferdinand timed his challenge to perfection, preventing what would surely have been a goal from the forward who plundered a ha-trick from as many chances in Balckburn’s 3-2 win at Old Trafford.
It proved the platform for United’s late double salvo, first from Valencia with his ferocious angled drive, then Young with his arrow-like strike, the defeat dropping Rovers back into the bottom three.
United secured their 19th title with a draw at Ewood Park last season and the same venue looks to have provided them with the cushion to secure No.20.