They left it late, but Manchester United’s two-goal victory against Blackburn Rovers was another ominous signal that Sir Alex Ferguson’s side will retain their Premier League title.
Goals from Antonio Valencia and substitute Ashley Young sealed victory to take the Reds five points clear of second-place Manchester City – the biggest margin they’ve enjoyed all campaign.
Ferguson was seen punching the air with both fists towards the 7,000 strong visiting support in the Darwen End before stoppage-time had even been displayed. It is on such evenings when defining moments are easy to pinpoint.
The visitors enjoyed the majority of possession, but with Phil Jones superfluously drafted in, the balance had gone awry. Wayne Rooney and Antonio Valencia supported Javier Hernandez, but the sudden formation switch was patent.
Rio Ferdinand praised United's vocal support:
Out of a midfield three consisting of Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes, Jones was deployed the furthest forward and looked like the perennial fish out of water. Gasping for breath from the first shrill of the whistle, it is a wonder he did not suffocate that high up the pitch.
Blackburn manager Steve Kean brought in Bradley Orr to shore up a backline which defended reasonably comfortably in the first period – with the exception of Hernandez hitting the post – and the Blue and Whites could have gone in at half-time ahead.
They were twice thwarted by the ever-improving David de Gea in under as many minutes before the interval, as they rallied late. Martin Olsson’s fizzing half-volley was firmly stopped by the Spaniard before Grant Hanley – who scored the winner at Old Trafford in December – saw his header tipped over from the resulting corner.
Junior Hoilett had already tested the 21-year-old with a precise strike as the Canadian – and striker partner Yakubu – served as a reminder for the Red Devils that concentration was paramount at both ends of the pitch.
Ferguson refused to introduce a left-winger at half-time, and although United were prompter in their build-up, Patrice Evra continued to be isolated. His crossing – unfathomably bad for such an attack-minded left-back – was again wretched.
Danny Welbeck came on at the expense of the toiling Hernandez, but the system remained the same. It was not until Ryan Giggs emerged that United enjoyed some balance, however he too drifted infield.
The logical replacement for the appalling Jones was Young, and it was when he belatedly arrived that United breached their hosts.
Now tasked with dealing with two out-and-out wingers, Rovers got narrow. Valencia had been covered well by the Olsson twins (not Mary-Kate and Ashley), but on the rare occasions he was swift in his play United had gone close.
Then in the 81st minute, he engineered space to unleash what he labelled after the match a “50-50” cross-cum-shot which rifled past Paul Robinson. Ex-England goalkeeper Robinson’s Achilles heel tends to be distance shots, and he affirmed that by failing to deny Valencia’s saveable effort. The usually reserved Ecuadorian meanwhile was galloping off and into the arms of Rio Ferdinand and gleeful team-mates.
This United ooze grit more than guile, but the latter was present for the second goal. Thirty-seven passes preceded Young’s turn-and-shot from 20 yards to seal victory. His movement and pace had indirectly caused problems already and now his contribution was noted on the scoresheet.
The Riversiders dropped back into the relegation zone but Kean was bullish about the seven game run-in, as was fellow Scot Ferguson about a potential 13th English league title for him. Unluckily for some.