Individual moments of genius from the ever brilliant Antonio Valencia and substitute Ashley Young ensure United went 5 points clear of City at the top of the Premier League, after a hard fought 2-0 win at Blackburn Rovers this evening.
Lets not beat around the bush, Blackburn made us work as hard as anyone has all season. Both teams had a desire to attack early on. With Sir Alex making 3 changes from the Blackburn game and changing the formation to 4-3-3, Uniteds line up was strong but with a more defensive outlook than expected. With that in mind, our attacking start was a pleasant surprise. In the words of Gary Neville, “United were at it!”
Blackburn themselves looked to put David De Gea under pressure with a number of crosses in the opening minutes. The Reds keeper though, along with Johnny Evens and Rio Ferdinand, were more than capable of keeping Rovers at bay. United then took over.
It was Javier Hernandez, playing in the advanced role, who had the best opportunities during the first half. First he was put in from a stunning diagonal ball from Rooney. Under pressure he snatched at his shot wide when you would have expected him to score. Moments later Valencia drove a ball low to the near post, Hernandez, with his characteristic movement, got between two defenders to flick the ball towards goal. his luck was out however, as the ball struck the post and rebounded back to Paul Robinson.
It wasn’t just Hernandez who was getting a sniff at goal. Both Rafael and Johnny Evens both found themselves in good positions. Rafael had his cross/shot blocked where as Evens found himself with lots of time inside the box but his tame shot was saved easily by the Blackburn keeper.
United were dominating possession and territory. Blackburn were limited to only long range efforts from the break and set pieces. They did look dangerous though when they did break and there was always danger when they had a set piece. Defensively, they were well organised and very tight, giving United very little space in the final 3rd. The Champions were having to work very hard to retain possession and brake Blackburn down.
Much of Uniteds attacks were from down the right with Valencia. Rooney, starting on the left side of the front 3, was happy to cut inside and sit deeper. From here he managed to spread the ball and look to start attacks. Valencia, however, stuck tight to that right wing where he tormented the Olsson twins.
Ferguson’s decision to play 3 in central midfield was giving the team a solid platform from which attacks could build, as well as giving them a stability off the ball. The tactics may have been questioned by some, but ultimately they were spot on.
With half time approaching it was Blackburn who came so close to taking the lead. David De Gea was forced into two magnificent saves in injury time, one from a powerful Hoilett shot which he superbly reached (diving to his right) to turn over the bar, and then from a powerful header from the resulting corner. Earlier he had also been tested by Yakubu’s well struck shot, again getting a strong hand to the ball to turn away. Not only did he spare United blushes, keeping the game level at the brake, he was also well and truly putting his nightmare from the corresponding fixture on New Years Eve behind him.
With no changes at half time it was Rovers who started the second half the most brightly, having a good 10-15 minute spell of possession in which they looked a little dangerous. A Pedersen freekick was struck through the United wall forcing a save from De Gea who did well after being unsighted. Rio Ferdinand was quickest to react to clear before a Blackburn attacker could find the net with the lose ball.
With an hour gone the manager made his first change, bringing on Danny Welbeck for the luckless Hernandez. Shortly afterwards Ryan Giggs was also introduced, on for Phil Jones in the centre of midfield. Jones had a reasonable game, though did look a little lost on occasion. This marked the end of Blackburns spell, United were now to lay seige to the Rovers goal.
Valencia continued to run at the Blackburn defence and put dangerous balls into the box. Evra was now providing a better option on the left as he and Giggs were combining well. Credit to Blackburn, they remained resilient, United really only looking like braking them down via the wings.
With Yakubu the only Rovers player anywhere near the United half the pressure on the Blackburn defence was continuous. But, once again, the odd brake looked dangerous with United committing more and more men further up the pitch, roared on by the faithful, and always chanting, away support. It was one of these brakes which almost saw United come undone twelve minutes from time. Marcus Olsson had time in the United box to deliver a low cross to Yakubu who was free at the near post. Yakubu was odds on to score, and would have if it wasn’t for an exceptional tackle from Rio Ferdinand. Timed to perfection, he hooked his foot around the Yak to prevent him striking Rovers into the lead. Not only was it pivotal in terms of the game, but it was pivotal in terms of the championship.
Having almost seen us go behind, and not wanting to miss the chance to increase our advantage over City, Ferguson made his final substitution. Ashley Young replaced Paul Scholes. A little surprising given Scholes was having a good game, but it was a decision which would prove to be a master stroke.
United really were “at it” now, and finally, in the 81st minute, all of their hard work paid off. It was fitting that it was Valencia who gave United the lead, having been far and away our best player once again. Picking the ball up out wide Valencia, as he had done so many times this evening, charged at the Rovers defence. Once in the box however, rather than looking to pick out a cross he struck the ball powerfully Paul Robinson in the Blackburn goal. When the net bulged everyone involved with Manchester United erupted. Players, staff and fans were delirious, we were ahead and it was nothing more than we deserved. It was also a massive goal in the context of the title race, we were about to be 5 points clear. Valencia said it was 50/50 cross/shot, but the more you see it, the more it looks like he intended the shot.
Blackburn, after all their hard work in defence, were now deflated. United sensed this and were not about to miss out on their chance to kill the game off. With 5 minutes remaining United did kill the game off. Ashley Young found himself with a couple of yards to turn on the edge of the box, take a touch and fire a bullet low past Paul Robinson. A brilliant finish.
With the goal difference now at just one goal, in City’s favour, United were not sitting on their laurels. With only a few minutes remaining there was still a desire to score more goals. It wasn’t to be, but none the less, when the final whistle blew the feeling of delight was evident for all to see.
This was a tricky fixture, a potential Banana skin. The effort that the United players had put in tonight was testament to that and their reaction at the final whistle indicated they know how important the victory was. But not only that, it showed everybody the desire that every single United player has to make this season, number 20.
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