|Photo by Stevendepolo on Flickr
Blackburn Rovers played party spoilers at Old Trafford on Saturday, as Manchester United surrendered a shocking three goals and lost at home for the second time this season. Injuries tell part of the tale, especially on defense, but even the most ardent Red would have to look himself in the mirror and say the team just wasn't good enough on a day that saw United play a lineup full of attacking options -- including Antonio Valencia, Nani, Danny Welbeck, Chicharito, and Dimitar Berbatov all on the pitch at the same time.
The game began like many of the team's recent efforts, as the movement both on and off the ball looked strong to begin the contest. There were bursts of flowing movement, but with a key difference to the last several matches: no end product. Even more unfortunately, the game's first score came from a most unexpected spot: Dimitar Berbatov -- showcasing that his defense still needs some work -- pulled down a massive fistful of Yakubu in the box, and the Nigerian calmly dispatched the ball beyond David De Gea to give the visitors an unfamiliar 1-nil lead.
With so many players being deployed outside of their natural positions, United were overly aggressive in their tackles, with Nani and Michael Carrick giving confirmed United hater Mike Dean two easy opportunities to brandish his yellow card. Phil Jones' offesnive effort was unwittingly blocked by Chicharito as the Reds finally began to build up a head of steam on the offensive front, dominating possession. For their part, Blackburn showcased some grit but little polish on defense, although they did manage to limit the Reds' real chances to somewhat less than a handful by the game's half hour mark.
United had a flurry of chances before the break, but left the pitch frustrated; lots of possession but little to show for it, with the Reds looking a long way from the team that hammered out successive 5-nil victories. In fact, the 45 minutes turned in by the home side resembled the Carling Cup effort against Crystal Palace more than it did the more recent efforts against Wigan and Fulham.
Anderson replaced Chicharito at half, entering the fray roughly two months before most United fans expected him to appear. The Brazilian's return allowed the Reds to return to a more natural 4-4-2 shape, with Rafael slotting to fullback, Valencia to the wing, and Welbeck to the front of the line. Unfortunately, it was Yakubu who was the first to benefit yet again, and the Old Trafford crowd were stunned into silence by the big man's prowess and the visitor's 2-0 lead. The shock lingered only for a minute, though, as Dimitar Berbatov managed to find the back of the net with his head to bring the home side back into the game -- a very strange notion, indeed.
The home crowd awakened, bloodlust and nerves mixing into an uncomfortable cauldron of noise, and the game hit the 60 minute mark with the scoreboard still showcasing the strange 2-1 result. Dimitar Berbatov -- who else? -- finished Antonio Valencia's race to the end line to continue the readjustment to something more expected, and leveled the game at 2. It was the Ecuadorian and the Bulgarian leading the charge back, the former supplying the pace and verve, and the latter supplying the sublime finishing skills expected of a Golden Boot winner. The stage now appeared set for another dramatic, late comeback.
Although the Reds laid siege in search of a winner, when it came it was from a most unlikely source: De Gea flapping wildly at a ball high in the box and Blackburn's Grant Handley following his own header into the box for a 3-2 Blackburn lead. Questions have to be asked of the Spaniard, as Anders Lindegaard looked on from the bench, wondering exactly what the heck his compatriot was doing on the Blackburn corner.
Although Will Keane made his Premier league debut late in the contest, coming on for Rafael, it was all too little too late for the Reds, who handed Sir Alex a huge and unexpected whoopie cushion for his 70th birthday present. It's a see-saw season, and today's unexpected result puts the advatnage firmly back in the hands of United's main rivals in blue.
This is farlieonfootie for January 1.