There was an explosion of joy at the final whistle at the Darwen End of Ewood Park. Manchester United fans have a reason to celebrate as they came away from Ewood Park with 3 points and in that process, extended their lead at the top of the Barclays Premier League to 5 points over nearest rival, Manchester City. The fact that the rival is City made the celebrations sweeter but the a word of caution, the league is not over yet so keep the celebrations in check.
Ewood Park is a tough place for United to go to. In our last 10 matches there, we have only won twice. Blackburn Rovers had also stunned us on New Year’s Eve with a 3-2 win at Old Trafford. The visitors were also in a good run which was halted last week by a Fabrice Muamba-inspired Bolton Wanderers. The hosts were fighting to stay up in the Premier League so the points mattered to them as much as it mattered to the Red Devils. Pre-kick off, anyone with a United inclination would be worried about the outcome of this match considering the record we have had at Ewood Park in recent past and because of the shock result against them this season which spoiled many New Year parties of United followers mine included.
United started the game with a formation that was reminiscent of the time when Carlos Quieroz was Sir Alex’s number two. 4-5-1. Wayne Rooney was stationed on the left wing, a position he stopped playing in as Cristiano Ronaldo left for Real Madrid. Ex-Blackburn prodigy and one of the standout Blackburn players in the draw last season, Phil Jones was placed in centre midfield alongside veteran, evergreen Paul Scholes and the omnipresent Michael Carrick. We started the game brightly. It was obvious from the start the most of our threat would come from the right flank through Antonio Valencia and Rafael Da Silva behind him as Rooney broke forward centrally whenever he could to join the attack rather than pull out wide to the wing. As the game wore on, Blackburn became more organized and tougher to penetrate. United’s passing grew slower as they pondered on how to break the opponents down. The game was crying out of for some invention and some drive from someone in a red shirt. The closest United came to scoring in the entire first half was through a predictable channel as Valencia got down the right wing and swung in a low cross that Javier Hernandez got to very sharply ahead of the nearest defender only to be denied by a miraculous save by Paul Robinson. In past encounters, United faced a giant in Brad Friedel who had the ability to keep out everything thrown at the Blackburn goal. Have they found a new answer to that in Robinson now?
When Blackburn went forward, they looked dangerous albeit with long range shots that were accurate and dangerous. We needed David De
Gea and his reflexes to keep us in the game as we ended the half having witnessed at least three wonderful top-class saves from him to deny Blackburn a goal. The last denying the protagonist of the New Year Eve encounter, Grant Hanley who was proving to be a colossus in the Blackburn defence. The second half started with more of United’s dominance in terms of possession. Crosses and through passes were cleared but United started testing Robinson more as the Reds from Manchester gradually increased the tempo of their game. It took the arrivals of milestone man Ryan Giggs and the in-form Ashley Young to bring the game to another level. However to break the deadlock, it required a moment of magic. Valencia took on Marcus Olsson and cut through the ball with the outside of his boot and the ball powered through into the bottom corner of the net. It reminded me of a combination of two direct running right wingers of the recent and not so recent past, Cristiano Ronaldo and Andrei Kanchelskis. Valencia’s strike not only had the power of Kanchelskis but the technique of Ronaldo too. Cue wild celebrations in front of the travelling support who created great noise throughout the game. Just as it seem that United would settle for a 1-0 win as the passes started going sideways and the players started to not look forwards, Valencia broke forward and the ball found its way to Young who curled a precise shot around the right side of the post to confirm a hard-earned victory.
It surely feels great to have opened a 5 point lead with 7 matches left over Manchester City and I find it difficult not to get carried away in the euphoria. It’s almost as if the euphoria of the crowd from Ewood Park could be sensed through the TV screen and felt even in Singapore. However, it is important to contain our joy and get behind the side again as the end gets nearer. The trophy has not been handed out yet and it is still mathematically possible for us to lose the title. In terms of personnel, the players said the right thing in the post-match interview and it is very obvious that they know it is not all over yet. They are only taking it one game at a time. Slowly the games will run out. Everyone seems to be in good form barring a few. Jones doesn’t look anything like the player we saw at the start of the season, Danny Welbeck was guilty of misplacing some passes and trying to be too fancy with the ball and Hernandez was similarly guilty of misplacing passes but looks sharper of the two. Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen look to have been frozen out of the side and I feel either or both are worth a run-out being fresher. Young has to play in the form that he is in and with United playing only once a week, we can expect freshness and more of the same in terms of the line-up granting stability to the team.
This win as much as it is for Valencia’s powerful deadlock breaker and Young’s sublime, precise curler, there is also the contribution of De Gea’s saves and Rio Ferdinand’s crucial block tackle on Yakubu when he looks odds on to score.