|photo by AdrianDC||via PhotoRee|
After a stress-free weekend spent golfing in Scotland, Sir Alex and the boys got back down to business on Monday as they traveled to Blackburn Rovers in a game that would have a significant impact on the season's title chase. Fergie tossed out a real puzzler with the opening team sheet, leading to questions as to how United would set up, but by kickoff it was clear the Gaffer had opted for a 4-3-3 spearheaded by Antonio Valencia and Wayne Rooney out wide, with Chicharito in the center, backed by a midfield trio of Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes and ex-Rover Phil Jones. The defense remained constant, anchored by the newly shorn David De Gea in net, with Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans sharing center half duties, while Patrice Evra and Rafael worked the sidelines at fullback. To Ewood Park for our patented Game Day Report:
It's a physical contest from the outset, the tackles hard and elbows flying, with the noise from the supporters on both sides only serving to increase the intensity of the players on the pitch. United begin confidently, a mood befitting their performance on the road this season, and the quick passing and deft touches displayed by the visitors have to be a pleasing sight to their manager. While Valencia and Rafael busy themselves with the task of tearing the left side of Blackburn's defense to shreds, Junior Hoilett comprises a one man protest unit for the opposition. Although United continue to control the proceedings, the offensive chances spurned by Chicharito and Rafael in the early going seem fewer and further between as the referee's watch passes the half hour mark.
Rooney's propensity to cut inside from the left leads to an generally unbalanced attack as the tension increases, and Rovers are able to spare an extra man to keep the threat from Valencia down to a dull roar by the time the halftime whistle nears. Meanwhile, Blackburn's threat level goes from non-existent to terrifying in first half stoppage time, as De Gea is twice forced to tip over the bar to keep the score line tight.
The evening turns a bit nasty as Scholes is felled by an early second half elbow, and United dial up the pressure in search of the lead. Blackburn's Paul Robinson is put to the test by both Rooney and Rafael before Rovers respond with several attacks even more blistering than Scholes' verbal assault on Referee Howard Webb, and only the linesman's whistle for a ball over the end line stops Blackburn from grabbing a shock lead.
Ryan Giggs, Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young are exchanged for Jones, Chicharito and Scholes, and the Peter Pan-like Welshman ignites a new sense of urgency among his teammates, who now find themselves with less than twenty minutes to find a winner. Defensively, Blackburn park the bus, placing eleven men behind the ball at times, as United look to settle in for an all-out siege.
Blackburn don't roll over and die, however, and they continue to offer threats of their own, calling for a world class effort from Ferdinand to snuff out Yakubu. With less than ten minutes to go, Antonio Valencia creates something from nothing, his inside out curler beating Paul Robinson to the far post, the Ecuadorian magically bending the ball for a season defining goal. Ashley Young doubles the visiting side's joy less than five minutes later, with a laser-like strike that leaves Robinson stranded and the score line at 2-nil on the night.
The result can be said to slightly flatter the Reds, as the contest was fiercely fought before being broke open in the closing minutes, but none of the 7,000 supporters who made the trip from Manchester seem to mind. At evening's end, United are five points clear at the top of the League, and having defied Roberto Mancini's prediction that they would "do a draw" on Monday, now appear a firm favorite for title number twenty.
This is farlieonfootie for April 3.