United took a huge step towards a 20th league title with a priceless victory over Blackburn at Ewood Park, secured by superb late goals from Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s side ground down a dogged Rovers side over the course of an attritional 90 minutes fraught with occasional scares, but ultimately settled by another decisive contribution from Valencia.
The Ecuadorian winger, United’s most menacing outlet all evening, blasted home a stunning opener with nine minutes remaining, then teed up substitute Young to crash in a similarly eye-catching clincher five minutes later to move the Reds five points clear of second-placed Manchester City.
While Valencia’s display was the outstanding individual contribution, it took a collective heave from United to secure victory, from the last-gasp heroics of David De Gea and his defence to the tireless running of Wayne Rooney, through the limitless patience of the ever-probing Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick.
Sir Alex approached the game with the deployment of three central midfielders, giving Phil Jones his first start at Ewood Park since his transfer to Old Trafford, alongside Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick in midfield. Wayne Rooney and Valencia operated on the left and right flanks respectively, leaving Chicharito as the spearhead of the United attack.
The Mexican had the game’s first opening inside five minutes, as Grant Hanley failed to deal with Rooney’s flighted diagonal ball. Under pressure from Martin Olsson, however, Chicharito could only scuff his left-footed volley wide, and the striker’s frustration grew soon afterwards.
Valencia, who linked fruitfully with Rafael down the right flank throughout the first period, drilled in a low, right-wing cross which Hernandez redirected against the base of the Rovers post, only for the ball to the back of Paul Robinson, who showed great dexterity to turn and grasp the ball on the line.
United’s general confidence in possession suggested a breathrough was inevitable, but Blackburn served notice of their dormant threat in the 18th minute when Junior Hoilett surged from midfield and unleashed a curling, 25-yard effort that De Gea spectacularly punched away.
The hosts’ tight, clustered formation meant United’s dominance of the ball was given little chance to spawn clear openings. The Reds’ first corner, gained just after the half-hour, yielded a chance for Jonny Evans but, after a goal and an assist in his previous two outings, the centre-back could only curl a low shot at Robinson, rather than around him.
Suitably buoyed by that chink in the hosts’ armour, the visitors stepped up the pace again. Valencia, enjoying himself as United’s most menacing outlet, slung in a superb back-post cross that the unmarked Jones could only direct wide of the upright. Blackburn quickly regrouped, however, and resumed their gameplan of containment.
Just as the interval loomed with United comfortably in charge, Rovers forced two fine saves from De Gea. The Spaniard first produced a wonderfully acrobatic, one-handed stop to turn Marcus Olsson’s crisp half-volley over the bar, then flipped Hanley’s looping header to safety from the resulting corner.
Scott Dann sprung to the fore in the opening stages of the second period. The Blackburn defender might have done better with a header inside the United area, but then did brilliantly to nod Jones’ cross away from the lurking Chicharito. Rooney and Rafael then drew full-length saves from Robinson, who turned away the striker’s free-kick and beat the Brazilian’s stinging drive to safety.
However, as in the first period, United’s pressure also brought reminders of Rovers’ perennial threat, and Yakubu chanced his arm twice in a minute. The Nigerian slashed wildly off-target when presented with the ball by Carrick’s slack pass, then drilled past De Gea’s near-post after being forced wide by Ferdinand.
The veteran defender then crucially mopped up after De Gea had spilled Pedersen’s fizzing free-kick into a dangerous area, before the Norwegian winger slammed home a clinical 20-yard finish. Fortunately for United, the ball had already been run out of play by Steven Nzonzi in the build-up.
Thereater, United grasped full control of the game, pushing forward relentlessly. Ryan Giggs and Danny Welbeck replaced Jones and Chicharito, further thickening the plot for a Blackburn side manfully withstanding the visitors’ onslaught, despite the best efforts of the 7,000 baying visiting supporters in the Darwen End.
It was almost the home contingent in revelry with 12 minutes remaining when the ball looked set to break for Yakubu deep in the United area, but a superb last-gasp interception from Ferdinand heroically averted the danger. That moment would prove pivotal.
For seemingly the umpteenth time, the ball was ferried to Valencia on the right flank and the Ecuadorian immediately made a beeline for the hosts’ box. He was barely inside it when he unleashed a scorching effort with the outside of his right boot from an angle that belied its intent, yet the ball nestled emphatically in Robinson’s far corner.
The Darwen End writhed in delirium and collectively bellowed: “We’re gonna win the league,” a chant soon given a second airing when substitute Young, on for Scholes, picked up possession from Valencia, faked inside and drilled home a superb low shot that arced just inside Robinson’s left-hand post.
Another major hurdle cleared, another sizeable step in the right direction from a United side who have built up menacing momentum as they pound down the home straight.
20th title is visible now!!