Manchester United’s post-match reaction to their 2-0 victory over Blackburn Rovers epitomised the magnitude of claiming three points at a traditionally difficult ground for the Red Devils. It was only their third victory in 12 visits to Ewood Park and it moves the defending champions five points clear of second-placed Manchester City. The win was fashioned in typical United style, digging deep and landing the knockout blow with 10 minutes remaining. Antonio Valencia’s strike finally broke Blackburn’s resistance, before substitute Ashley Young curled a low shot past Paul Robinson to polish off a dogged win. It will be a demoralising result for City, who now face an unenviable journey south to The Emirates on Sunday. It could prove to be the week United wrap up a record 20th league title and it would appear they now have virtual match points.
Sir Alex Ferguson shuffled Wayne Rooney out to the left for United’s trip to Ewood Park, but the England forward drifted in-field resulting in an off-balanced formation. As a result, United turned to Valencia as they attempted to breakdown a resilient Rovers defence. Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes constantly fed United’s Ecuadorian winger with probing balls, inviting the 26-year-old to attack Blackburn’s Grant Hanley. Valencia’s delivery from out wide was a constant threat to Rovers’ defence but it was the midfielder’s 80th-minute strike which propelled United to a vital victory. Cutting in from the wing, Valencia drilled a cross-cum-shot past an out-of-position Robinson. It capped a dominant display by Valencia, who was the visitors’ stand-out performer and his contribution to what seems a likely 20th league title cannot be undervalued.
When Blackburn caused an upset on New Year’s Day by winning 3-2 at Old Trafford, it was United’s beleaguered David De Gea who bore the brunt of the blame for a disappointing result. The former Atlético Madrid goalkeeper initially struggled to adapt to the physicality of the Premier League but the injury to his rival Anders Lindegaard afforded the Spain Under-21 international with the chance to establish himself as the Red Devils’ undisputed first choice. While Valencia’s late strike was the highlight of a tight game, De Gea made a crucial contribution in the first half, denying Junior Hoilett a spectacular opener with a full-stretch save and being on hand minutes later to parry Hanley’s header over the crossbar. The 20-year-old was made redundant after the interval but still had to be alert to block Morten Gamst Pedersen’s free-kick. The clean sheet capped an impressive transformation over the past three months.
Rovers have shown outstanding resilience this season to recover from a woeful spell in October and November, when they won just once in 12 games, to find themselves in 16th place, just above the relegation zone before welcoming United to Ewood Park. Coming into Monday night’s game, Steve Kean’s side had collected 10 points from a possible 18 but the relegation candidates came undone against a superior side. De Gea was the busier of the two goalkeepers in the first half and had to be alert to produce a string of crucial saves. Perhaps Yakubu could have struck after the interval but the Nigerian striker spurned two opportunities to score his 17th of the season. Kean must now motivate his players for a series of must-win games as his side dropped back into the bottom three after Monday’s game, with Queens Park Rangers moving to safety thanks to their superior goal difference.
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