After a dramatic weekend of football, overshadowed by the news that Stiliyan Petrov had been diagnosed with acute leukemia, with fans all over no doubt wishing him a speedy recovery, it was left to Manchester United to travel the short distance to Ewood Park and take on Blackburn Rovers with one objective in mind. Given the fact that Manchester City had dropped 2 points at home to Sunderland the day before, the onus was on Sir Alex Ferguson’s men to capitalise on the slip and take all 3 points to go further clear at the top of the table. Fans and players alike were likely aware of the potential for a tough encounter on Monday night, as Ewood Park has not been the happiest of hunting grounds for United for many seasons, one of their least productive visits of all in the League bar Chelsea’s home. Regardless, the past means little in the task at hand now and this is where the focus shall remain as the season reaches it’s end.
United started with David De Gea continuing in goal, after receiving praise this week for his improvement and clear augmentation in his confidence. In central defense, Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans partnered with Rafael Da Silva and Patrice Evra on the right and left respectively. In midfield, Phil Jones was brought in as part of a 3 man centre midfield, with Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick. Out on the right, Antonio Valencia would be found, with Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney together up front.
The first half kicked off with United taking control of possession early on. Play looked to be controlled from midfield, with Scholes and Carrick looking to assert themselves in the area and set play up from there. However, if they thought that chances would be easy to come by, they were mistaken as the hosts proved difficult to break down, setting up in an organised manner and allowing few clear cut chances. In fact, it was the home side that had the pick of the early chances, as Hoilett forced De Gea into a stretched save from distance. It appeared to set the tone for proceedings, with United having much of the ball and Blackburn looking as though they may catch them on the break. For all the possession, it could not be made to count as the first half looked to end goalless, with United struggling to find a way through a resilient home side with the occasional wasteful moment, and the opposition threatening to catch them with their own efforts. In fact, United faced the danger of going behind before the break, as Blackburn enjoyed their best period of play, forcing De Gea into two good saves in injury time to keep his side level.
With no changes made at half time, the second half kicked off with United continuing to find their way through a stubborn opposition. With Evra and Rafael both able to get forward the potential to attack was there but the visitors struggled to open up the defense in the way they hoped. An hour in and the quiet Hernandez is replaced by Welbeck with Jones following soon after for Giggs. In between this, Blackburn again found themselves with a chance snatch a goal, as Pederson’s low free kick beat the wall only to be parried by De Gea, but was well cleared by Ferdinand. Soon After, and the ball is in the net, but was correctly ruled out after the assist from N’Zonzi was adjudged to have gone out of play in the build up.
The game continued with United persisting, refusing to back off in their pursuit of an opening goal, turning the screw as the minutes clocked up. With 10 minutes remaining, the final substitution is made as Paul Scholes made way for Ashley Young. Minutes later and the deadlock is broken. After a game in which much of the attack had been channelled through his side on the right, with many crosses not bearing fruit, Antonio Valencia took it open himself in emphatic fashion. As he collected the ball on the right near the box, he took on his defender ominously, firing a shot (or cross) out wide, beating Robinson at the far post, sparking scenes of euphoria and a sense of relief from the away fans as well as the United bench.
Three minutes later, and scorer turned provider, as Valencia played a pass across to Ashley Young, who controlled the ball, turned and fired a strong finish into the low corner from just outside the box, sealing the result, providing his side with a 0-2 victory and ensuring United went 5 points clear at the top of the Premier League in the process. With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Valencia proving a matchwinner
Many of Valencia’s contributions have been praised this season for the impact they have provided at crucial times as well as his consistency since returning from injury. As well as this, his apparent improvement in his eye for goal has meant a greater depth to his play, providing a different threat as well as that given by his productive crossing out on the right. On Monday night, it would be fair to say he truly made the difference with his spectacular shot/cross (which he modestly claimed was “50/50”). His assist for Young’s quality finish sealed the three points and one must admit the form of the Ecuadorian heading into the final games of the season certainly inspires confidence.
2) De Gea lauded, continues to display the reasons
Prior to the match, much of the build up focussed on the improvement charted since David De Gea’s game against Blackburn at Old Trafford, and the greater stature with which the young goalkeeper is occupying the United goal. Indeed, on Monday fans got a reminder as to one of the reasons behind United’s rich vein of form of late, as the Spaniard produced fine saves to deny Blackburn the opportunity to take the lead, particularly as the first half drew to a close, as he saved from Olsson’s half volley and Hanley’s header from the resulting corner. A deserved clean sheet.
3) Was the midfield set up effective?
One could understand the logic in the way in which United set about the midfield early on. Clearly, the logic was to assert some form of dominance over the game early on, taking control of possession and applying the pressure as the opposition was worn down. However, as the game moved on it became clear that this had not come off quite as well as one might have hoped. With much of the play going through Valencia out on the right and Wayne Rooney playing deeper it could be seen that United were struggling to truly break down what proved a well organised side by Steve Kean. Although Scholes and Carrick controlled play well, Phil Jones did not settle into the game as hoped, and with the introduction of Young in his place, the use of width looked to be the more likely avenue in which to win the game.
4) Rio Ferdinand’s telling contribution
The back four contained some impressive performances on the night, with Rafael Da Silva looking particularly lively, but mention should go to Rio Ferdinand for his efforts. His reassured performance in the centre of defense certainly made a difference in United keeping a clean sheet, making crucial blocks and tackles, with the clearance of Pederson’s parried free kick being a notable example. Yes, he perhaps got caught out on occasion, such as when Hoilett was able to use his pace to beat him rather easily at one point late on, but in all Ferdinand deserves praise for a calm and collected performance.
5) Away fans “12th man”, five points clear
As many fans watching the game agreed, as did Sir Alex Ferguson post match, the support providing by the 7000 travelling fans could not be ignored. Throughout the game they provided a strong voice, backing the side from start to finish, and as Valencia’s superb effort flew in, they turned up the volume on a night in which they were in fine voice. As the season reaches it’s conclusion, such vocal support will no doubt be welcomed by the players and manager, something which he was keen for his men to show their gratitude for when the final whistle blew. On a night when the home side provided stern opposition at a ground where United have not had the best of success in recent years, strong support will always prove helpful.
Five points clear at the summit of the league, with a goal difference reduced to a solitary goal behind and with seven games to play. For now, it is advantage United, but Sir Alex Ferguson will be all too wary of any slip ups heading into such a crucial time of the season. Regardless of any results rivals Manchester City will produce, Ferguson will definitely make sure that his side simply focus on their own task at hand, continuing to win to ensure they are the masters of their own destiny in what fans will hope culminates in a 20th league title.
Wonder how Mancini and Vieira feel right now!