United fire blanks as Blackburn alter the title race once more
By Daniel Alston
A resolute Blackburn defence held out to a probing but blunted Manchester United, securing a goalless draw and preventing the champions from going back to the Premiership summit.
After the worst of weeks, Sir Alex Ferguson will have been looking to shake off their exit from Europe and defeat to Chelsea with a rejuvenated victory over their local rivals at Ewood Park.
And without the injured Wayne Rooney, a promising if unfamiliar forward pairing of Dimitar Berbatov and Federico Macheda led the line in an attack-minded 4-4-2 formation.
Pacey wingmen Nani and Antonio Valencia were joined in midfield by the veteran partnership of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, with John O’Shea replacing Patrice Evra in an otherwise first-choice defence as the Irishman continues his recovery.
Sam Allardyce looked to continue his side’s good run of late, but surprisingly his side lined up without mercurial playmaker and leading goalscorer David Dunn, the 30-year old taking a place on the bench with Vincent Grella preferred instead. Niko Kalinic sat up front on his own, and 18-year old Phil Jones made his fifth league start of the campaign.
With the weather a rare treat in the north-west, an enjoyable afternoon of good football in the sun looked to be on the cards. Yet what actually transpired was a game of few chances and moments of action.
Indeed Blackburn’s best chance came and went on 8 minutes. Grella’s cross finding Chris Samba, who won the battle in the air and powered a header which Edwin Van der Sar did well to get down low to steer away.
United dominated possession throughout, passing the ball around well and looking very reassured at the back. Shots on goal were proving tough to carve out however, as Rovers did their best to narrow out attacks, crowding out the red shirts trying to probe into the penalty area.
Valencia was one of the few players to find himself in a goalscoring opportunity; fed by Macheda, his fierce right-footed shot equalled by a fine save from Paul Robinson at his near post.
On the left, Nani was giving ageing Spaniard Michel Salgado a test, with the ex-Real Madrid full-back picking up an early booking. Shortly afterwards, Samba failed to shake off a knock and was withdrawn for Ryan Nelsen.
And just before half-time, United should have been a goal ahead. Berbatov, who was playing far deeper than you’d want a £30 million striker to do, played a perfect pass through the middle and Valencia was one-on-one with the goalkeeper. With perhaps too much time to think about it, the Ecuadorian wasted the chance as Robinson stood up well and blocked the effort with his leg.
Brett Emerton made way for David Dunn at the interval, with Big Sam presumably trying to break up United’s dominance in midfield. Ten minutes into the new half, Darron Gibson came on for Giggs for the away side.
Chances continued to be few and far between; United’s final ball not good enough and Blackburn’s rushed clearances simply gifting away possession as soon as they gained it.
Macheda was substituted for Park Ji-Sung after the hour mark and United’s lack of options up front was underlined with the introduction of the South Korean. A hard-working team player no doubt, but probably not the man you’d turn to when it comes to grinding out that vital goal.
Gary Neville picked up a caution and O’Shea came off for Evra as Fergie rolled the dice one last time. With ten minutes to go, Berbatov had the chance to claim the three points. Scholes found Neville on the right, who’s cut-back cross bounced to the Bulgarian. A difficult ball to strike and direct, but for all the ability in his right foot, he could only send it straight at Robinson.
Gibson entered the referee’s book for sending Kalinic to ground as Blackburn looked for a rare break, and then Neville was called into action with a flying body block to snuff out a shot from inside the area.
Back at the other end, the England full-back could have grabbed the headlines in injury time with his 6th ever goal for United. Scholes was grounded by the marshalling defenders with his back to goal, and the ball fell to Neville and his weaker foot – his effort missing the post by a slight margin.
And that was that. Another day of taking points off the top clubs for Allardyce’s men, another setback in the title race for Ferguson and co. With Chelsea preoccupied with the FA Cup, today was a great chance to go back to the top and put the pressure on the Londoners. But in truth, a United side without Wayne Rooney lacks bite and threat, and for all their possession and passing today, it just wasn’t enough.
With Manchester City waiting next, United fans will be praying for Rooney’s return. City, still on track to finish in that final Champion’s League spot, will have even more reason to go for the win than in any recent derbies between the two.
What did you make of the game? Do you feel that United need to sign in the summer to be able to win games like this without Rooney? And what are your views ahead of the Manchester derby? Please leave your comments below…
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