Manchester United can stretch a lead at the head of the Premier League to five points with victory over Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park on Monday night. With Manchester City’s drawing at home to Sunderland on Saturday, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men begin the fixture with the advantage now firmly with the Reds in the Premier League title race. Indeed, United faces two pivotal, and potentially title-winning, fixtures in the next week after City dropped points at Eastland. Should the Reds beat Blackburn, and then Queens Park Rangers next weekend, Ferguson’s men will be eight points clear before Roberto Mancini’s men play again.
No wonder Ferguson focused on praising United’s nerve this week, with City seemingly coming apart at the seams over the past two months. Mancini’s almost permanently pained expression says much, while Blues Mario Ballotelli and Robert Kolarov came to blows in City’s weekend draw.
Yet, with United travelling to a ground where the Reds have not always enjoyed success, Ferguson knows that United’s advantage is based on the slimmest of foundations until converted into points. The Scot’s side has won just once at Ewood Park in the past four visits, ensuring few Reds will count the points won and advantage sealed just yet.
“Hopefully we can remain there but we also know that football can turn on you and bite you,” said Sir Alex.
“We have a small advantage, it’s not a great advantage; it can be changed in one game. We just have to take each game as it comes along, it’s the only thing we can do. Once the Fulham game was over the focus was on Monday night [at Blackburn] and after that it’s the game against Queens Park Rangers. That’s the way we need to handle it.”
Ferguson’s relaxed press conference this week offered a stark contrast to Eastlands where Mancini’s stress levels are palpable. Little wonder given the relative experience of the Premier League title run-in, and his players’ propensity to self destruct. That Mancini is increasingly calling out Carlos Tevez as a potential title-winner is, perhaps, the kind of “desperation” Ferguson again talked about this week.
“You get nerves. You are in a football job and it’s your life and there is anxiety but not to the point that you get desperate. We lost the league in 1992 with four games in six days and to see your lead evaporate like that – it felt like it had disappeared within seconds.
“There could be a shock around the corner now, you never know. We have done well in terms of getting into the position we are and now it is a case of playing our game and keeping our nerve. That is why I was so concerned in the last 15 minutes of the Fulham game when we kept giving the ball away.”
With possession in mind at Ewood Ferguson is likely to restore Paul Scholes to United’s starting line-up. The 36-year-old midfielder sat out the Reds’ victory over Fulham at Old Trafford last Monday, with Ryan Giggs unimpressive in his fellow veteran’s stead.
Meanwhile, Ferguson will choose between Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernández in attack, with the Mancunian youngster under pressure after a poor performance against Martin Jol’s Cottagers last Monday. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are both available, but Nani is unlikely to return with the Portuguese still suffering from an ankle injury. However, Rio Ferdinand will start despite being withdrawn after 60 minutes on Monday night.
And United’s collective fitness is in sharp relief to the reverse fixture with Blackburn this season, when Kean’s men won 3-2 at Old Trafford in what still amounts to the biggest Premier League shock this season. That defeat came amid the most devastating injury crisis in Ferguson’s 25 year reign at Old Trafford.
Yet, after three draws in the past four years at Ewood United players cannot count on the three points won already, not least with that Blackburn defeat still fresh in the mind.
“It’s always been a tough place to go for us,” Giggs told ManUtd.com.
“It’s like a mini-local derby. We always take good numbers there but that just seems to lift the Blackburn fans, who are always up for it. On a few occasions down the years we’ve not played very well there and we’ve had one or two players sent off at Ewood Park as well. It’s just been a tricky place to go, although we do have good memories of going there from last season when we won the league at Blackburn.”
Meanwhile, Blackburn manager Steve Kean, who has led his team to 10 points from the past six games, could again be without defender Gael Givet. The Frenchman’s hamstring problem is yet to heal, meaning Kean could name an unchanged side for the fourth fixture in succession.
It is a remarkable turnaround by Blackburn, with Kean’s side bottom before the win at Old Trafford and the Scot under fan and media pressure. Now clear of the relegation zone, Kean’s men not only have designs on staying up, but securing an unlikely double over United in the Premier League.
But in Wayne Rooney, who has scored 31 goals in all competitions for club and country this season, Ferguson retains the Premier League’s most in-form striker. Little more than a year ago Rooney had been caught paying a prostitute for sex, and had blackmailed the club into offering a lucrative new contract. Now, Ferguson believes the striker’s goals and new-found maturity will fire United to a 20th domestic title in little more than six week’s time.
“You always see a maturity about players when they reach their mid-20s,” says Ferguson of Rooney, who is now 26.
“Along with their ability comes the thought patterns and timing. They are more in control of themselves in terms of what they are capable of doing. He could get to 40 goals. He has eight matches left, he can average a goal a game; you’d take that, wouldn’t you? We would reasonably expect eight more goals. Would he get footballer of the year? Well, you have to say that Van Persie has had an exceptional season.”
Eight goals would take Rooney to 39 for club and country, but whose counting if those strikes secure United the title?Increasingly in the driving seat, United will surely be desperate to ram home the advantage at Ewood. It is a venue where happy memories reside from last season’s title-winning draw. Travelling Reds will hope for a repeat experience.
Blackburn Rovers versus Manchester United, Premier League, Ewood Park, 2 April 2012, 8pm.
Blackburn (4-4-2): Robinson; Mn Olsson, Dann, Hanley, Formica; Pedersen, Nzonzi, Ms Olsson, Lowe; Hoilett, Yakubu. Subs from: Bunn, Orr, Dunn, Petrovic, Vukcevic, Modeste, Goodwillie.
United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Scholes, Carrick, Young; Rooney; Hernández. Subs from: Amos, Fabio, Smalling, Jones, Giggs, Park, Cleverley, Pogba, Welbeck, Berbatov.
- Blackburn face Premier League leaders, Manchester United, this weekend coming off the back of a defeat to local rivals Bolton Wanderers last weekend;
- Of the top 10 goalscorers this season, Ayegbeni Yakubu has the best shots-to-goals ratio in the EA Premier League Sports Index. Yakubu has racked up 14 goals from 30 shots, which is an impressive 46.6 per cen strike rate;
- In Blackburn’s last game Morten Gamst Pedersen covered more ground than any other player on the pitch, clocking up 6.7 miles. In 25 appearances this season the Norwegian averages 6.5 miles per game;
- Only Norwich City has made more clearances than Blackburn this season, with Rovers making 335 clearances to date;
- Meanwhile, United’s Patrice Evra has averaged 5.5 miles per game in his 29 appearances for United this season, making him United’s top runner with 161.16 miles in total;
- Wayne Rooney poked home from Jonny Evans’ pass last weekend – Rooney has now scored 21 Premier League goals this season from 71 shots at goal, giving Rooney a conversion rate of 29.1 per cent;
- United has the best shooting accuracy of any team in the Index, with 63.7 per cent of the Reds’ shots hitting the target. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side also has the best shots-to-goals ratio of any team in the league, with a goal every 6.24 shots.
Referee: Howard Webb (Rotherham)
Assistants: S Bennett, M Mullarkey
Fourth Official: M Atkinson