Liverpool were not so much knocked as bundled off their perch as a typically below-par away performance from Manchester United sealed a scrappy 1-1 draw at Blackburn Rovers to gift Sir Alex Ferguson’s side a 19th League title, overtaking Liverpool’s 18. United were rocked by a sweet finish from Blackburn’s Brett Emerton in the first half before a rush of blood from Paul Robinson in the home side’s goal saw him catch Javi Hernandez, who had practically raced the ball out of play. Wayne Rooney made no mistake from the resultant penalty.
That the remaining twenty minutes were played at such a lacklustre pace does credit to United’s performance on the day but is also a testament to the team’s extraordinary ability to mask abject displays by snaching victory from the jaws of defeat over and over again this season. For Blackburn manager Steve Kean, who saw defensive rock Chris Samba walk off with a hamstring injury shortly after United’s equaliser, a draw was still more than welcome given that his side’s main goal threat had come almost exclusively from a rare uncertainty in United’s back four.
History is rarely made by spectacular individual moments, however. This bland display was not what won United the title. Whilst on this evidence, the banner flown by members of United’s passionate away support which proclaimed that Barcelona were next on the Manchester club’s list appears a little optimistic, noone can deny that this is a United team which cannot be written off.
Without the consistent goal threat of Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani, Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney have all been on hand for long enough to carry the team through its lowest periods; Javi “Chicharito” Hernandez has proven to be one of the best signings of the season, producing enough goals and understanding with Wayne Rooney to carve himself a place in the starting eleven; the evergreen Ryan Giggs’ experience has made him an asset right across the midfield and, perhaps most importantly, the infamously stubborn defence has coped with major injury setbacks throughout the season.
In truth, despite the opinion of many critics, this Manchester United can actually play attractive football too and it certainly showed for the opening quarter of an hour as a no-nonsense defensive approach from Blackburn invited the visitors onto them. Wayne Rooney dropped very deep to pick the ball up in the absence of Paul Scholes and was able to form little triangles with Nani and Jonny Evans on the left, and Antonio Valencia and Fabion the right. Nani hit the bar with a header early on and United appeared to have full control over proceedings.
That control was illusory, however; Blackburn’s pluckiness, combined with the vast spaces in front of United’s back four which one might expect a manager who has won twelve league titles to address at some stage over the years, allowed the home side to break at speed and hunt down the long balls being pumped out of their resolute defence. In the end, stand-in goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszcak flapped at a cross from the right and the ball was kept in play by Olsson on Blackburn’s left, who combined with Hoilett before sending in a delightful cross for Emerton to slot home.
The goal seemed to spark Blackburn into life, and their endeavour was nearly rewarded on two separate occasions when Kuszcak dallied on the ball and almost gave away an embarassing second: first, Nemanja Vidic bailed him out as he couldn’t decide whether to gather a slice from Rio Ferdinand in his arms or kick before an onrushing Hoilett; second, when the Polish goalkeeper took so long to clear his lines that the ball came back off Hoilett and mercifully flew out for a goalk kick.
United, meanwhile, pressed to little effect for the remainder of the first-half and for the first fifteen minutes of the second. Nani was wrongly given offside after a lovely combination by Rooney and Hernandez (reminiscent of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke in their pomp) but, a few dangerous corners and crosses aside, Blackburn looked comfortable until the sort of lucky break which seems to make the difference between perpetual champions and doomed nearly-men befell Manchester United.
Javier Hernandez chased onto a through-ball inside the Blackburn penalty area, but appeared to be heading out of play as he rounded the onrushing Paul Robinson. Inexcusably, the former England international left a trailing arm. Hernandez felt the slightest of contacts and flung himself to the ground (had Ronaldo done it, wry smiles will doubtless have been creeping across the face of the entire country). Referee Phil Dowd appeared unmoved, but the better-placed linesman said ‘yes’ and Wayne Rooney sent Robinson the wrong way with the coolest of finishes.
That really was that. Blackburn couldn’t really hope to attack United without exposing themselves at the back – particularly with the valiant Samba having gone off with a hamstring problem – and United, whose introduction of Paul Scholes and Dimitat Berbatov had done little to change the pattern of play, were more than happy to pass their way to glory for the remainder of the game.
As a footnote to United’s great achievement, the other beneficiary of this result is Blackpool manager Ian Holloway, whose side have a realistic hope of keeping themselves in the Premier League with a result at Old Trafford now that Sir Alex Ferguson has a Champions’ League Final to prepare for with no domestic concerns. And what a story it would be if the Scot were to pull that one off too.