|Blackburn Rovers||(0) 0 – 2 (0)||Manchester United|
|Valencia 81, Young 86|
|Referee: H. Webb||Attendance: 26,532|
As I left Ewood Park, my mind began to wander to younger days when, as a teenager, I left Ewood Park on the final Saturday of the season having witnessed the Rovers being hammered 4-1 by United. That game was the penultimate home match of the 1965–66 campaign and by that point the Rovers had already been consigned to the Second Division. Little did I know that it was to be the start of a 25-year period of exile from football’s top table. On Monday night as we walked away from another, albeit expected, home defeat, the conversation turned to how long it might be before the Rovers and United played another league match at Ewood Park. Sadly, the perilous state in which the club now finds itself both on and off the field suggests another lengthy spell in the wilderness might well be in the offing.
Ironically, Manchester United seem to feature with monotonous regularity whenever the Rovers face relegation from top-flight football. In 1947–48, even before my time, the final top-flight match prior to the drop was a 4-1 drubbing at Old Trafford. There was then the 1965–66 debacle and more recently in 1998–99 it was United who sent us down with a 0-0 draw at Ewood Park. Meeting United at this time of the season when the spectre of relegation hovers over Ewood Park is clearly not a good omen.
In many ways this match mirrored much of the season: a spirited performance in parts undermined by a serious lack of quality in several key areas. The game plan was clearly based on getting everyone behind the ball, not necessarily pressurising the opposition, in an attempt to deny them space. For 80 minutes it looked as if it might, by some miracle, actually work but, of course, one moment of pure quality was all it took to undermine the plan and send the Rovers hurtling into the relegation zone.
Steve Kean brought Bradley Orr into the side in place of Mauro Formica and switched Jason Lowe into midfield to allow Orr to play at right-back. Otherwise, it was the same side that had been so desperately disappointing at the Reebok the previous week.
United began the game on the front foot and the Rovers seemed content to surrender possession and territory to the visitors and defend in numbers in their own half. With the backing of a huge contingent of travelling fans, United went in search of an early goal and created several promising openings. Javier Hernandez fluffed a chance created by Wayne Rooney before being thwarted by Paul Robinson after good work by Antonio Valencia created the opening. A well-struck effort from Michael Carrick then sailed narrowly over the bar as United revelled in the time and space which they were given in midfield.
The Rovers sparked into life as an attacking force when Grant Hanley’s long ball forward was helped on by Yakubu into the path of Junior Hoilett. The youngster showed Carrick a clean pair of heels before seeing his powerful shot spectacularly saved by David De Gea.
However, despite this short respite from defence, the Rovers were soon on the back foot again and had to be grateful that Jonny Evans failed to strike the ball cleanly when in a good shooting position. Robinson had little difficulty in gathering the ball in and shortly afterwards Phil Jones, on his return to Ewood Park, spared his former club’s blushes when he headed wide from a tight angle.
As the half drew to a close, the Rovers became a little more daring and actually started to make inroads in the United half of the pitch. However, once again, it was the tried and trusted long throw of Morten Gamst Pedersen that almost brought about the downfall of the United goal. Hoilett put Patrice Evra under pressure and the ball ended up at the feet of Marcus Olsson just outside the penalty area. The young Swede struck the ball with power and precision and it seemed destined for the top corner of the net until De Gea made a brilliant one-handed save. The resultant corner, by Pedersen, was met by the head of Hanley, but once again De Gea was in the right spot and helped the ball over the bar.
The second half began in much the same way as the first — with United in total control and continually knocking on the door as the Rovers again retreated and attempted to defend on the edge of their own area. A super free-kick from Rooney tested Robinson, but the former England ‘keeper pushed the ball away and did the same a short time later when Rafael Da Silva tried his luck with a fierce drive.
Rovers might well have taken an undeserved lead but for an eagle-eyed linesman who spotted that Steven Nzonzi had failed to keep the ball in play when manoeuvring along the byline. The French midfielder had pulled the ball back for Pedersen to strike a delightful first-time effort into the back of the net only to see the linesman’s flag raised.
United then continued to press with increased vigour as Sir Alex Ferguson rang the changes in search of the goal that would give them a five-point lead at the top of the table. Yakubu might well have upset those plans, but as he moved onto a pass from Marcus Olsson, Evans nipped in and got a vital block as the Yak was about to shoot.
As the game moved into the last ten minutes, it appeared as though the Rovers would gain an unlikely point. Unfortunately, a moment of brilliance by Valencia undid all the good work that the Rovers had done up to that point. The former Wigan man took the ball past Martin Olsson — and once again a full-back was left exposed and without cover — before blasting a shot which flew across Robinson’s goal and into the far corner of the net. Sir Alex danced onto the pitch and waved a clenched fist to the United fans as he celebrated a goal which took his team five points clear of their neighbours. Five minutes later and he was celebrating again when substitute Ashley Young found the bottom corner of the net from the edge of the area.
The Rovers players looked out on their feet at this point, but once again there was no sign of a substitute being brought on. Indeed, even after United had taken the lead, there was no attempt on the part of Kean to inject fresh legs and go in search of an equaliser.
The final whistle stretched United’s lead at the top of the table to five points whilst the Rovers slipped into the dreaded bottom three.
In defence, Grant Hanley had another outstanding game, while Junior Hoilett was a threat whenever he was able to run at the United defence. However, there are worrying signs that Yakubu is beginning to show signs of tiring after a long, hard season in which he has had to carry the brunt of the attack on his own. In midfield, Steven Nzonzi had a subdued game whilst Jason Lowe struggled to make any impact on the game alongside him. Morten Gamst Pedersen struggles in terms of the defensive side of the game in midfield, but once again his long throws, corners and dead-ball kicks remained our most likely source of snatching a goal.
Whilst it was, in many ways, a gallant effort, it was also a futile one as once United scored it was clear that the Rovers simply didn’t have the personnel to implement a “Plan B”. Substitutes are rarely used by Steve Kean, for reasons that we can only speculate about, even when the course of a game needs to desperately change. Sir Alex used all three of his substitutes as he looked to alter the outcome of the game. Admittedly, the United boss has a wealth of talent at his disposal whilst a look at the Ewood bench revealed that apart from David Dunn there was little to enthuse about what was held in reserve. A Ryan Nelsen or Michel Salgado might well have organised the defence and inspired those around them. A Jason Roberts might have provided the fresh legs to worry a far from impregnable United defence. An El-Hadji Diouf might well have been able to retain possession far better than the players on view in the “Blue & White”. Sadly, that experience is no longer available and clearly the manager doesn’t believe the likes of Petrovic, Vukcevic, Modeste, Rochina and Goodwillie have much to offer to a Premier League team. The Rovers are now not only operating with a wafer-thin squad — surely the smallest squad since the start of Premier League football in 1992 — but don’t appear to be able to utilise it to the full.
Whilst there is no shame in losing to Manchester United, who are surely destined to win yet another title, the fact remains that the Rovers desperately need to take points from an unlikely source. Too many points have been dropped at Ewood Park to inferior opposition, which is now catching up with the Rovers. With seven games remaining, it’s clear that the number of points needed for survival is likely to be higher than the 34 points that many, myself included, thought likely. Thanks to the benevolence of Liverpool towards QPR and Wigan, coupled with QPR’s surprising win over Arsenal, it now seems that 37 points, coupled with a good goal difference, might be required to ensure survival. At the moment that figure looks to be an awful long way from the 28 points we already have. If the Rovers are to survive, there is no doubt that they are going to have to adopt a positive approach and go out to win games, and what better place to start than at The Hawthorns on Saturday.
Paul Robinson; Bradley Orr, Scott Dann, Grant Hanley, Martin Olsson; Morten Gamst Pedersen, Jason Lowe, Steven Nzonzi, Marcus Olsson; David “Junior” Hoilett; Yakubu
Subs not used: Mark Bunn (gk), Radosav Petrovic, David Dunn, Mauro Formica, Anthony Modeste, Ruben Rochina, Adam Henley
Manager: Steve Kean
David De Gea; Rafael Da Silva, Jonny Evans, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra; Antonio Valencia, Phil Jones (Ryan Giggs 63), Paul Scholes (Ashley Young 79), Michael Carrick; Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez (Danny Welbeck 61)
Subs not used: Ben Amos (gk), Chris Smalling, Paul Pogba, Ji-Sung Park
Manager: Sir Alex Ferguson
Blackburn Rovers – Grant Hanley
Manchester United – Antonio Valencia
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