Cristiano Ronaldo’s sucker punch of two goals in two minutes did to Blackburn Rovers what Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool have failed to do this season: achieve victory. The 2-0 win puts the Reds three points clear at the top of the Barclays Premier League, although Arsenal play Reading on Monday.
There aren’t many sterner tests - both physically and in a football sense – than Mark Hughes’ high-flying Rovers. But Ronaldo’s double strike in the first half was the crucial blow. And when Blackburn had David Dunn somewhat harshly dismissed early after the break, it was game over.
Sir Alex had brought Rio Ferdinand, Owen Hargreaves, Ryan Giggs, Wes Brown and Anderson back into the team. And with Wayne Rooney on the sidelines with an ankle injury, Sir Alex called on Louis Saha for his first league start of the season. The Frenchman partnered the energetic Carlos Tevez in attack, and it was the Argentina international that registered United’s first meaningful effort on goal. Finding space playing off Saha, he he struck a testing shot from 20 yards, which Brad Friedel had to be at full stretch to turn round the post.
However Blackburn weren’t without their threatening moments. Unbeaten away from home this season and having already taken points off Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, Mark Hughes’ men are a force to be reckoned with. Just before the 15-minute mark, Patrice Evra cleared the ball after a frenzied scramble in the box. Then five minutes later they hit the woodwork. Ronaldo was fouled on the edge of the area by David Dunn, but referee Chris Foy waved play on. The Reds were caught off guard, and Christopher Samba smashed the loose ball against Edwin van der Sar’s right post.
Seconds later Tevez was pulled up for an innocuous foul on the centre circle. After the unpunished foul on Ronaldo, United’s players were incensed, and the incident roused the Old Trafford crowd. United pushed forward and from a corner Ronaldo’s left-foot volley was cleared off the line by Dunn. As Blackburn so often do at Old Trafford, they were frustrating the Reds. But Sir Alex’s side are resolute in finding a way through, and would not submit to the suffocating resistance Blackburn use to strong effect. With 12 minutes of the half remaining, Ronaldo climbed above Aaron Mokoena inside the area and directed his header past David Bentley on the post.
He followed it up with a quick-fire second from a rapid breakaway Reds counter attack. Saha retrieved the ball in midfield and fed it to Tevez, who surged forward and curled a pass round the last defender with the outside of his boot, leaving Ronaldo to side-foot the ball past Friedel.
Blackburn’s task was made all the more difficult early in the second half when they were reduced to ten men. Dunn was shown his second yellow card for a late challenge on Saha after earlier being booked for tugging Tevez’s shirt. The two incidents barely warranted an early bath and Hughes was furious with the decision. With one less player standing in his way, Ronaldo went in search of his first United hat-trick. And he almost found it after an hour. Shifting the ball quickly onto his left, he struck a rasping 20-yard shot a matter of millimetres past the post.
With two minutes remaining Blackburn had one of their best chances to make an impression on the scoreline, but even then the Reds were switched on and alert. From a corner, Rovers’ tall centre-half Samba headed the ball goalwards. Van der Sar saved the ball on the line, but Evra needed to think quickly to clear the loose ball, which he did, skipping away from danger and blasting the ball clear.
United looked slick in possession and quickly moved into cruise control to see out the 2-0 win, which proved more straightforward than had been predicted. Blackburn will feel they were robbed of the chance to challenge United’s 2-0 lead after Dunn’s sending off. But there can be no grievances with the way the Reds took them apart with two first-half goals that punctured their hopes of adding United to a growing list of clubs that have tripped up against them. Make no mistake, this is a big win. And with United now on a run of ten matches unbeaten, the Reds’ title defence is significantly gathering pace.
Manchester United: Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo, Hargreaves (Carrick, 76), Anderson, Giggs (c); Tevez, Saha (Nani, 68)
Subs not used: Kuszczak, O’Shea, Fletcher
Blackburn Rovers: Friedel; Emerton, Nelsen (c), Samba, Warnock; Bentley, Dunn, Mokoena, Pedersen; McCarthy, Santa Cruz (Derbyshire, 78).
Subs not used: Brown (Gk), Ooijer, Tugay, Berner
Report: United 2 Blackburn 0