Manchester United’s 10 days of tribulations is now underway, opening with a trickier-than-it-looked victory over AS Saint-Etienne in the Europa League. The Reds take a 3-0 lead into the second leg in France, which should provide ample cushion to rest some key names as the fixtures continue to pile up. José Mourinho was not altogether satisfied with United’s display against les Verts, but two goals from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the closing stages – adding to his bizarre opener – means that the manager can look to Sunday’s FA Cup trip to Ewood Park against Blackburn Rovers in isolation.
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
Manchester United faces bottom club Blackburn Rovers this weekend, with top place in the Premier League on offer should Sir Alex Ferguson’s men achieve at least a point in the Saturday lunchtime fixture. In truth, United will be gunning for a third heavy win on the bounce against Steve Kean’s relegation-threatened strugglers, even if Ferguson’s injury list still runs 10 strong.
Indeed, United can grab a three-point lead with victory over the Premier League’s rank no-hopers, offering Ferguson a very happy 70th birthday, which the legendary manager celebrates on New Year’s Eve. The Scot should welcome Phil Jones and Rio Ferdinand back to the match-day squad, but is still likely to field an experimental back-four for Blackburn’s visit to Old Trafford.
Despite the patchwork nature of the Reds’ defence in recent matches, Ferguson will be confident of celebrating his special day in style, with United having scored 10 in the past two fixtures. And Ferguson’s belief is undiminished despite the ongoing injury crisis, with the Scot prepared to push players into unfamiliar positions if necessary.
“Obviously injuries to the defenders are quite a concern now, with Jonny Evans taken off at half-time [against Wigan Athletic],” confirmed Ferguson.
“We’re hoping Phil Jones will be fit, there’s possibly an outside chance that Rio Ferdinand will get on the bench. Other than that, we’re the same. We can cope, especially in home games. Michael Carrick’s form has been one of the key points in recent wins. He can pass the ball and has the height, pace and experience.
“It wasn’t a problem for him against Wigan. He was flawless. Patrice also has the experience and the spring to head the ball. If that is the case then fine. We will get on with it. We are at home. We will have the majority of the ball. We have to make sure we are positive when we have it and do enough to win.
“Chris Smalling has got tonsillitis. I know there are reports about glandular fever but they’re off the mark. He had glandular fever as a kid but that’s not the case here. He should be ready for the Newcastle game, at least definitely the Manchester City game in the FA Cup. He’ll be ready for those games.”
Jones returns to bolster Ferguson’s side, although the 19-year-old may play in central midfield, with Michael Carrick once again likely to fill in at centre-half. With Antonio Valencia probably starting ahead of Rafael da Silva on the right, Ferguson will field at least two players out of position against a Blackburn attack containing in-form Yakubu Aiyegbeni.
Meanwhile, in midfield Ryan Giggs may start a second game in a row, with Darron Gibson and Park Ji-Sung also in contention. Mexican striker Javier Hernández may come into attack – despite Dimitar Berbatov’s hat-trick on Monday – with Ferguson keen to rotate his squad over a busy Christmas and New Year period. Indeed, the Bulgarian may not be afforded the opportunity to repeat his five goal haul in United’s 7-1 victory in the same fixture last season.
Whatever the team selection it is a period in which the Reds will surely emerge as the Premier League front-runners, beginning 2012 leading the pack, and with the experience to bring home a 20th domestic title come May.
“We have plenty of options in attack and I’m pleased with the form,” added Ferguson.
“Hopefully we can keep the momentum going. The form is good and the players are enjoying themselves too. It’s only the end of December. We surrendered a 12 point lead to Arsenal some years ago and won the title despite being 12 points behind Newcastle. Last year, in November, Chelsea were so many points clear that they were odds-on. But they hit a bump and we took over.
“So I think, with some of the games coming up in the second half of the season, you can’t say for certain that’s going to be the case [Arsenal and Chelsea are too far behind to win]. The difficulty for them is they’ve got to overtake three teams so, unless the three teams collapse, only that will be an opportunity for Arsenal or Chelsea to take advantage of. As for Spurs, I think they play the best football in the country. The current team, in the form they’re in at the moment, is the best in the country.”
However, with City facing tough fixtures within a 48 hour period against Sunderland and Liverpool, Ferguson will consider the next few fixtures pivotal in the Premier League campaign. While the Scot may look enviously at City’s plentiful resources, Ferguson, 70 years young, will thrive on placing the Blue half of Manchester under pressure in the coming days.
It is Ferguson’s level of experience in the arena that Welsh legend Ryan Giggs says will be vital before the campaign concludes in May.
“The experience that the manager, the players and the coaching staff have of what’s required in the second half of the season, as well as the overall hunger and desire to win competitions, will help us,” Giggs told ManUtd.com.
“Big players can’t wait for big games. Towards the end of the season the games just get bigger and bigger. For me personally, you want that in the run-in – you want to be involved in big games and going for the title. That’s why you become a footballer. Obviously City have got off to a better start but we’re pleased with where we are in the table and especially the form at the moment. We’ll just look to kick on as we always do in the second half of the season and hopefully we’ll have a bit more luck with injuries and have a strong run after Christmas.
“We’ve had setbacks throughout the years and you learn from them and they can help in a way. I’ve experienced that throughout my career – you might hit bad form or you miss a good chance, and you can’t wait for the next game so you can rectify it. I’m sure all the lads felt like that after the City game and after the Basel game, which was a big disappointment too. You’re going to get setbacks but it’s how you react to them and thankfully we’ve come back strong.”
Meanwhile, a thumping United win could yet relieve Kean of his Blackburn job before the New Year. Kean’s inevitable dismissal at some point this season will disappoint fellow Scot Ferguson, who has publicly supported the younger man.
Kean will bring his embattled troops to Old Trafford wit a plethora of key players doubtful for the fixture, including Paul Robinson, Martin Olsson, David Dunn, and David Hoilett. Ryan Nelsen, Gaël Givet and Vince Grella are definitely out. Meanwhile, Scott Dann’s twisted testicle will not be fit for action, of any kind, until January.
And to stretch the analogy, this is a fixture that, even in its current state of fitness, United surely cannot balls up.
Manchester United versus Blackburn Rovers, Premier League, Old Trafford, Saturday 31 December 2011, 12.45pm.
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Valencia, Carrick, Evra, Fryers; Nani, Jones, Giggs, Park; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Lindegaard, Rafael, Pogba, Cole, Diouf, Macheda, Berbatov, Welbeck.
Blackburn (4-5-1): Bunn; Lowe, Samba, Hanley, Henley; Nzonzi; Petrovic, Pedersen, Formica, Vukcevic; Yakubu. Subs from: Kean, Morris, Rochina, Blackman, Goodwillie, Roberts, Blackman, Anderson.
- Manchester United joined Manchester City on xxx points, and went a long way to equalling the goal differential with a 5-0 win over Wigan on Monday;
- Dimitar Berbatov proved that he still is of use at United (or of value in the transfer market) with a brilliant hat-trick. Berbatov now has four goals in the Premier League this season from just eight shots at goal. His minutes per goal rate of one every 70 minutes 45 seconds has now surpassed Edin Dzeko’s as the best in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
- United’s other goal scorers Ji-Sung Park and Antonio Valencia have also spent spells on the sidelines this season. Valencia completed 49 passes in his opponent’s half against Wigan, the second highest of any player in the last round of games and just one short of Luka Modric. He also delivered 13 crosses, the highest on the last round, and the second highest in any game this season;
- Another United player resigned to ‘squad’ status, Darron Gibson, covered the most ground for United in that game with 5.71 miles;
- Nani has now put in more crosses than any other player in the Index with 74, one every 19 minutes 11 seconds. It’s the fifth highest in the league, discounting players who have put in fewer than ten crosses;
No fewer than five United players were named in the Index team of the week after the victory over Wigan: Lindegaard, Giggs, Valencia, Nani, and Berbatov;
- Meanwhile, Blackburn’s tough start to the season was given a boost by a point at Anfield in the club’s last Premier League outing;
- Morten Gamst Pedersen’s cross led to a Liverpool own goal to secure the 1-1 draw, and the Norwegian covered the most ground for Blackburn in that game with 7.3 miles, the 8th time he has done so this season. This was also the most ground covered by a single player in the Index in the last round of games;
- Yakubu has scored ten goals so far this season, with a conversion rate of 33 per cent shots to goals, the best in the Index;
- Christopher Samba remains the player to have made the most clearances in the Index with 58 clearances so far this season. Samba’s 11 against Liverpool was the most made by a single player in a game so far this season, while his 23 interceptions was the fifth highest of any player in the league so far this season;
- Stand-in goalkeeper Mark Bunn impressed in the draw at Anfield, and his 13 saves was the joint highest in the last round of games and the joint third highest by a goalkeeper all season.
Referee: Mike Dean (Wirral)
Assistants: D Richardson, R West
Fourth Official: L Probert
Sir Alex Ferguson will resist any temptation to rest his star players ahead of Manchester United’s trip to Blackburn Rovers. The Reds require just a single point to seal this season’s Premier League title and a 19th domestic championship, eclipsing Liverpool’s record in the process. But Ferguson says he will play his full strength side against Rovers, with just two weeks remaining before the Champions League final.
The Scot can boast a full squad for the tie as his players gear up for the Wembley showpiece at Wembley, with the returning Darren Fletcher set to feature after completing an hour in the reserves on Thursday night. Ferguson dismissed any thought of resting key players, although the United boss hinted that goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar may sit out the tie.
“We must approach the game the right way and play our strongest team,” Ferguson said on Friday.
“It’s always a difficult game and Blackburn are fighting [to stay up]. They probably need a point. They’ll be trying their utmost to get that point or even beat us. We must put in the same effort. It’s a hard game for both teams but we go there with confidence after last Sunday’s win over Chelsea which was a great performance by us and we need another like that.
“Given the programme he’s been through in the last few weeks, this may be an opportunity to give [van der Sar] a break. They’ve all been important games.”
Ferguson’s comments raise the spectre of the Reds’ boss fielding a reserve team against Blackpool at Old Trafford next weekend as United seek to complete the season unbeaten at home, while the Tangerines chase survival. It promises to be a controversial selection; one that the Premier League may choose to monitor closely.
Indeed, Mexican striker Javier Hernández, who has now featured in 43 matches during his first season at Old Trafford, may be given an extended summer break. The striker leaves for the Gold Cup in June and will miss United’s pre-season tour to the United States before returning to Carrington for training in late July.
“Once he plays in the Gold Cup, Javier will be given a proper rest and we will take it up from there,” said Ferguson.
“His performances in training and in games suggests there’s no tiredness at all but we will keep monitoring that. If we get the result tomorrow he will get the rest. If we don’t then he will play next Sunday.”
Ferguson is also likely to add Fletcher to the bench for the Rovers tie after the Scotland captain featured in United reserves’ 2-1 defeat to Blackburn in midweek. Fletcher has missed the best part of Untied’s run-in with a mystery virus but is now in contention to feature in the Champions League final too.
“He played over an hour on Wednesday [for the Reserves]. These kinds of games will hopefully bring him to the level for the final of a European Cup,” added the 69-year-old United boss.
“Hopefully he gets a bit tomorrow, some more on Monday for the Reserves and again against Blackpool next Sunday. There’s also Gary Neville’s testimonial game. There are opportunities to increase his fitness so we’ve got to give him the chance. He’s back training every day. He’s over his virus – it’s just a matter of getting that strength and speed to his game. He’s got the desire to do it.”
The Rovers game is, of course, one in which United should finally overtake Liverpool as the most successful in the land – at least in terms of domestic league titles. While Ferguson’s outfit has long “knocked Liverpool off their perch”, the Scot claims that continuing to win trophies is all that matters. And with Liverpool experiencing a renaissance under Kenny Dalglish, Ferguson says that the Premier League is set to get tougher in the coming seasons.
“I knew it [getting to 19] would happen at some point because of the history of the club,” added the Scot.
“There is a good structure here. We still produce young players really well and our scouting is good in terms of getting young players into the club at the right time. It would have happened anyway whether that was this year, next year or in 10 years’ time. The history and capability of the club would always have given us a chance.
“Liverpool will be galvanised next season I am sure of that. Kenny has signed a three-year contract that settles the club down and there will be plans. It just makes it more interesting next year. We have spoken for years about the big four but teams like Tottenham have not got back into the Champions League this year and they have had a fantastic season.
“It is going to be really difficult next year. It is going to be very difficult to get 90 points again because of the improvement of teams in the middle and towards the bottom of the Premier League.
“There has been an increase in desire from teams in those positions because the only place you can ever make money in English football is the Premier League.”
Meanwhile, Rovers probably require a single point for safety, raising the spectre of a tame Ewood Park draw that suits both parties. Manager Steve Keen is without on loan striker Mame Biram Diouf, who is ineligible to face his parent club. But the 43-year-old can welcome back defender Phil Jones, who has recovered from a back problem, while Michel Salgado and David Dunn are both fit.
Keen’s men are unlikely to face United’s top goalscorer Dimitar Berbatov though, with the Bulgarian again set for the United bench. The striker scored five in the corresponding fixture at Old Trafford but has started just one of United’s past 14 fixtures. It is a fall from grace that that corresponds directly to Hernández’ rise.
Yet, on this ground almost around 12 months ago the Bulgarian put in one of his most insipid performances in a Reds shirt, leading to a scoreless draw that ultimately cost United the Premier League title.
It seems unlikely that United, Berbatov or not, will “muck this up” in a similar way on Saturday.
Premier League. Ewood Park, Blackburn. 14 May 2001, 12.45pm.
United – 4411 – Kuszazck; Fabio da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, OShea; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: van der Sar, Brown, Evans, Smalling, Rafael da Silva, Gibson, Owen, O’Shea, Berbatov, Nani, Anderson, Evra.
Rovers – 442 – Robinson; Olsson, Samba, P Jones, Givet; Emerton, Nzonzi, Hoilett, Pedersen; Roberts, Santa Cruz. Subs from: Bunn, Formica, Mwaruwari, Hanley, Rochina, Andrews, Formica, J Jones, Kalinic, Diouf.
Referee: Phil Dowd
Assistant referees: Andy Halliday & Scott Ledger
Fourth official: Kevin Friend
Rovers – DDLLWD
United – DWWLWW
Dimitar Berbatov scored five goals as Manchester United thumped Blackburn Rovers at Old Trafford to take the Premier League lead for the first time this season. The Bulgarian hadn’t scored in 10 matches but put the drought behind him in emphatic style and became just the fourth man in the Premier League era to score five in a match.
Rooney was again the focus of attention before the match, with the 25-year-old striker seeking his first goal from open play this season but the former Evertonian was thoroughly upstaged by Berbatov, whose own position in the United team is under threat. Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson dropped the 29-year-old for last week’s fixture with Wigan Athletic.
Yet this was a match in which all the constituent parts came together for United after a series of underwhelming performances this season despite the unbeaten start. The Reds finishing, passing and especially movement were better than at almost any time in the past five months.
Remarkably United now lies top of the Premier League table by two points, having also hauled in Chelsea’s previously large goal-difference advantage to boot.
“We’ve been waiting for that performance for weeks,” Ferguson told Sky Sports News.
“We kept saying our rhythm and tempo was not good enough in the last few weeks, but today it was, we’ve found it and it’s pleasing to get it at this time of the season.”
“It was a fantastic achievement. He [Berbatov] could have scored six too because Paul Robinson made a fantastic save near the end.
“When strikers are not scoring they don’t think they are doing their job right. That has always been the case. Today it came back.”
With Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher absent through injury, Ferguson handed a start to Anderson in central midfield. The 23-year-old Brazilian has missed much of the campaign through injury, illness and poor form.
If Berbatov was under pressure to perform, then perhaps no more so than the £17 million former Porto midfielder who has so rarely justified the price-tag in three years at Old Trafford.
But Anderson was central to United’s opening goal inside two minutes, catching Rovers’ goalkeeper Paul Robinson in a challenge and enabling Berbatov to profit once the cross was delivered – the Bulgarian poking home Nani’s cross on just 72 seconds with Robinson poorly positioned.
Neater in possession today than is often the case, Anderson put in the type of box-to-box performance that so impressed United supporters when the player first arrived in Manchester.
Rooney was heavily involved in United’s second, exchanging passes with Park Ji-Sung before the South Korean lifted a finish over Robinson for his fifth goal of the season. It has largely been a poor season from Park but his goals tally is now equal of any campaign in more than five years in Manchester.
Pascal Chimbonda gifted Berbatov a second – and United’s third – moments later, with a laughably poor backpass towards Robinson before the half-hour was up, with the Bulgarian gleefully taking the chance.
Four more followed in the second half, with Blackburn no less impotent in the first and United in a mood not often seen at Old Trafford recently. Berbatov added a fourth and his third – a second hat-trick of the season – from 12 yards shortly after the half-time break. The interplay between Evra, Berbatov and Nani as sweet as anything produced by United this season.
Nani drove home an individual fifth just moments later, before Berbatov added his own fourth and fifth of the afternoon before 70 minutes was up.
That United failed to make double figures for the first time since the 1950s was a factor of some excellent goalkeeping by Robinson – not before time – and inevitably the hosts’ intensity dropping a notch.
Berbatov is often accused of seeking artistry over output but can delight in his contribution today. If the Bulgarian’s five haven’t put to bed questions about his Old Trafford future, they’re certainly a weapon in the 29-year-old’s armoury come potential contract negotiations next summer.
“I can’t believe it. I scored five in a game but it happened,” said the former Tottenham Hotspur striker.
“I have scored that many before but it was a long time ago back home in Bulgaria.
“Today I did it in the Premier League. The first goal was the most important, it gives you the confidence to play.
“As a striker, people do tend only to look at the goals you score. I am more concerned with how I play but today was all about goals for me.”
Yet for all the goals, Berbatov’s combination play with Rooney was the most striking aspect of the afternoon. Not always noted for their understanding, the pair offered a dynamic pairing and a sign of the genuine threat any all levels United could offer in forward areas.
If only each could find consistency and fitness on the pitch, together with some stability off it.
And with Berbatov’s personal goal demon slain, what hope Rooney will achieve the same sooner, rather than later?
United – 442 – Van der Sar; Rafael Da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic (Evans 64), Evra; Nani, Anderson, Carrick, Park (Obertan 72); Berbatov, Rooney.
Blackburn – 4141 – Robinson; Salgado, Samba, Nelsen, Chimbonda; Jones; Emerton (Linganzi 52), Dunn, Goulon (Hoilett 28), Diouf (Morris 52); Roberts.
Attendance – 74,850
Man of the Match – Berbatov
Possession: United 59% – 41% Blackburn
Attempts: 15 – 3
On Target: 11 – 2
Corners: 5 – 2
Fouls: 6 – 6
Wayne Rooney will make his first Old Trafford start in more than a month as Manchester United chase first place in the Premier League. The striker, who Thursday made a half-hearted apology to United supporters, is yet to score a goal in open play this season. Elsewhere manager Sir Alex Ferguson faces midfield selection problems .
Ferguson is without Darren Fletcher, who has a sore ankle, and Paul Scholes, absent with a tweaked a groin muscle sustained in midweek, for Blackburn Rovers’ visit where victory could catapult United to the Premier League summit. United remains second only on goal difference, with Chelsea set to play on Sunday.
The race for the league title now begins in earnest, with the Rooney saga now all but over. Indeed, Rooney could be key in securing United leadership before the New Year with Chelsea faltering in recent weeks.
“He needs games,” said Ferguson of Rooney.
“The way we are going to do that is to keep him on the pitch for 90 minutes. That will continue now as we try to get him to his level. He is rusty, that is obvious, but it is a start for him.
“Playing is the name of the game for him now.”
The absentees in midfield could mean a start for Anderson, who has been rarely used this season due to poor form, fitness and a recent illness. The Brazilian overcame knee-ligament damage sustained in February but suffered with the ‘flu virus that swept the United camp over the past fortnight.
Ferguson must also choose whether to keep faith with Dimitar Berbatov, who has now failed to score in more than 13 hours, stretching across 10 matches, since the Bulgarian scored a hat-trick against Liverpool in September. Berbatov sat out last weekend’s victory over Wigan Athletic but returned – to mixed reviews – against Rangers in the Champions League on Wednesday. Six-goal Javier Hernández waits in the wings
Elsewhere United can welcome back first choice central defensive pairing Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic after Ferguson rested the duo for the visit to Scotland,, with Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling dropping to the bench.
Ryan Giggs may also find himself benched after completing the full 90 minutes at Ibrox on Wednesday night.
The focus remains on Rooney though after the 25-year-old scored the match-winning penalty against Rangers. Ferguson praised Rooney’s “courage” in stroking home the 87th minute spot-kick and is likely to offer the former Evertonian another 90 minutes against Blackburn.
However, Rooney’s apology to United fans on Thursday has not received universal acceptance, coming 22 days after the striker signed a lavish £180,000 per week contract with the club. Rooney claimed to have already apologised – which he had not – before offering a somewhat half-hearted statement.
“I feel like I have apologised to the fans, but everyone keeps saying that I haven’t and, if that is the case, then I apologise for my side of things.
“I have made my point clear since I signed my contract that I am committed to this club for the long term and I want to be successful with this club. I spoke with the manager and [the chief executive] David Gill and they reassured me the club was moving forward and, from that point, it took only two or three hours to negotiate my contract and sign it.
“Everyone is saying that I was definitely going to Man City. Believe me, if I had gone it wouldn’t have been in England.”
However, the striker’s statement contradicts the widely held view that Rooney was prepared to accept a £260,000 per week offer from cross-town neighbours Manchester City before bowing to media and supporter pressuring and inking a new deal at Old Trafford.
Meanwhile, Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce is missing several key players for the short trip to Old Trafford. Keith Andrews, Vince Grella, Benjani, Steven Nzonzi, Martin Olsson and Brett Emerton all miss the match through injury, while Mame Diouf is ineligible to play against his parent club.
Blackburn has not beaten United since the 4-3 victory at Ewood Park in February 2006 – a run of nine matches. United, with Rooney seeking a first goal in open play this season, has little intention of letting that
run end today.
Blackburn – 451 – Robinson; Samba, Givet, Nelsen, Salgado; Dunn, Pedersen, Goulon, Hoilett, Diouf; Roberts. Subs from: Chimbonda, Jones, Bunn, Hanley, Morris, Kalinic, Hanley, Doran.
United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Nani, Anderson, Carrick, Park – Rooney, Berbatov. Subs from: Kuzszazk, Amos, Fabio da Silva, Evans, Smalling, O’Shea, Brown, Gibson, Obertan, Bébé, Giggs, Hernández, Macheda.
Referee: Lee Probert
Assistant referees: Patrick Keane & Trevor Massey
Fourth official: Chris Foy
United – WDDWWW
Blackburn – WLWWLL
Manchester United’s Premier League title challenge ended at Ewood Park in frustration after a stubborn Blackburn Rovers held out for a scoreless draw. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side handed Chelsea the title with little effort and seemingly less desire on a day which confirmed the desperate need for new investment in the squad.
Chelsea, a point clear with a game in hand, must now drop points in two fixtures for United to retain any hope of winning the Premier League. It’s unlikely to happen.
The frustration etched on Dimitar Berbatov’s face said much. The Bulgarian, leading the line in Wayne Rooney’s absence, sought both form and redemption from his many critics. Often criticised for his perceived lack of effort, Berbatov tried and ultimately failed to spark United into life.
Playing alongside Italian teenager Federico Macheda – the youngster’s first start of the season – Berbatov created little and wasted his best opportunity of the afternoon.
After the vigour of United’s first half midweek performance against Bayern Munich, Ferguson’s side returned to the lethargic effort that characterized defeats in Germany and against Chelsea in the past fortnight. With veterans Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville recalled to the side in an unfamiliar formation, it was perhaps unsurprising.
United’s best chance fell to Antonio Valencia, probably United’s greatest attacking threat, with the former Wigan man unable to beat Paul Robinson after being put through one on one with the Blackburn ‘keeper.
Valencia also drew a good save from Robinson when set up by Macheda before Nani, ineffective on the day, failed to test the ‘keeper with another effort in an opening half United dominated while creating few clear-cut opportunities.
Ferguson replaced Macheda with Ji-Sung Park and introduced Darron Gibson for Giggs after the break but neither was able to bring about a goal for the visitors, with the Irishman screwing his only effort tamely wide of target.
Then came Berbatov’s moment as the ball reached the Bulgarian record goalscorer 12 yards out with minutes to go. The weak shot, straight at Robinson, summed up United’s day.
“I think it has slipped away from us today,” admitted Ferguson.
“It is going to be very difficult to win this league. We only have a lifeline if Chelsea blow it. To my eyes they have an easy game against Bolton on Tuesday. We would expect them to win that. It will put them four points clear. That is a big, big gap.”
The Scot, who is rarely able to bring himself to deploy two strikers these days, may never do so again after Sunday’s performance. Berbatov frustrated in a deeper role and Macheda proved highly ineffective leading the line.
“We did not get the result we expected with the amount of possession of the ball we had,” he added.
“The last third was not good enough, I am afraid. We had the chances in the game and the possession but that is not enough. You need to create those chances and take them.
“We had enough opportunities to do that in the last third of the field. It is always a difficult place to come but nonetheless we should have done better.”
Much of the blame also falls at the feet of Nani, who returned to the frustrating pre-Christmas version of the Portuguese winger, rarely beating his opponent and often wasting good positions.
Then there is Berbatov who spent most of the afternoon gesticulating wildly at the referee and his colleagues. It was a day that could have ended his career at Old Trafford.
“That’s a fantastic result for Chelsea,” the Scot added.
United’s 8,000 travelling supporters deserved better.
Manchester United make the short trip across Lancashire without Wayne Rooney, whose aggravated ankle injury will keep the striker on the sidelines for another week. With five games remaining United’s only realistic hope of taking the Premier League title is with a string of wins on the bounce – starting with Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn Rovers.
“Bouncing back is in the nature of our club and is part of our history,” said Ferguson in a combative press conference on Friday morning.
“We’ve got five games to go and we need to win them, starting on Sunday.”
With Rooney out Sir Alex Ferguson will again turn to Dimitar Berbatov, whose performance against Chelsea last weekend drew stinging criticism from United supporters and media alike.
Accused of slowing United’s attacking impetus when deployed as the lone striker – in contrast to the Scouser’s dynamism – the Bulgarian faces one last chance opportunity to save the Reds’ season.
Ferguson, reluctant to break the striker’s fragile confidence this side of the summer, defended Berbatov on Friday.
“He is a good player and there is absolutely no reason why we should doubt that. Dimitar he has done well in a lot of games recently but we prefer to play with one striker,” said Ferguson.
“When we got the man sent off on Wednesday there was no need to bring a striker on because all we were trying to do was go over the line in terms of defending.”
The Scot could still turn to Federico Macheda, goalscorer in United’s loss to Chelsea, if he gambles on two striker’s at Ewood Park, although it is more likely the young Italian will feature from the bench.
In defence John O’Shea, substitute on Wednesday, could make the side ahead of Rafael da Silva at right-back. Although the Brazilian’s red card put paid to United’s chances in the Champions League, Ferguson rewarded Rafael’s outstanding performance with high praise.
Ji-Sung Park could come into midfield ahead of Wednesday’s goalscorer Darron Gibson, although Michael Carrick’s performance places the former Spurs playmaker’s place at risk.
Untied travel without Wes Brown, out for another fortnight, and long-term injury victims Owen Hargreaves, Michael Owen and Anderson.
With Blackburn in good form – four wins in a row – there is little doubt United faces a difficult proposition at Ewood Park even if the 1995 Premier League winners are now safe from the risk of relegation.
Indeed Allardyce, Ferguson’s close friend, bristled at suggestions Rovers will roll over for the Scot’s side.
“I take offence at the idea we will allow United to come here and have the points,” said Allardyce
“There is no chance of that. The only favours I dish out are by beating other teams that are close to them. You always want to do well against United and not because I am friendly with Sir Alex but because it is a local derby.”
With Chelsea in FA Cup action United will return to the summit of the Premier League with victory in the Sunday lunchtime kick-off. For Ferguson, anything else is unthinkable.
United: 4-2-3-1: van der Sar; O’Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Fletcher, Carrick; Valencia, Park, Nani; Berbatov