The Premier League title race, we have been told repeatedly over the last couple of weeks or so, is back on. Since getting knocked out of the Champions League by FC Basel, Manchester United have started to rediscover some of their familiar imperiousness, with sixteen goals in their last four Premier League matches – including five in two successive matches – while Manchester City have, with a defeat at Chelsea and a lacklustre draw at West Bromwich Albion, shown signs of chink in their previously impenetrable-looking armour. On top of this, Alex Ferguson (who gave himself three more years in the manager’s job at the club three years ago) confirmed that he intends to stay in charge at the club for a further three years this morning, and it’s also his seventieth birthday today. Today’s match, against the Premier League’s bottom club, should have something of a party atmosphere about it for Manchester United.
Something, however, doesn’t feel right today. The atmosphere at Old Trafford is muted, rather as if no-one particularly wants to be there. It would certainly be understandable if the Blackburn manager Steve Kean didn’t want to be. He remains persona non grata for a proportion of Blackburn’s support, a feeling that has scarcely been diluted by his team’s recent draw at Anfield. They remain anchored to the bottom of the Premier League and, as those that enjoy tidbits of coincidence masquerading as “omens” will be more than aware, the club that is bottom of the table at Christmas almost always gets relegated come the following May. Such omens, however, count for less when we pause to consider how congested the entire bottom half of the current Premier League table is at present. Blackburn Rovers may not be looking forward to the second half of this season, but – regardless of what we may read in the media – they haven’t been relegated yet this season.
The torpor seems to extend to the players this afternoon, as well. Manchester United play the first half as if distracted by something that is happening just off screen and Blackburn Rovers, who are playing with more spirit than might be expected from a team that has spent most of this season as if in preparation for a running in four different directions at the same time competition. Manchester United breeze around them for fifteen minutes as if in a training match, but they are then stung by what could be best described as a “forward’s tackle” by Dimitar Berbatov on Yakubu inside the penalty area. Wrestling him to the ground is no mean feat of itself, but Yakubu picks himself up to score the resultant kick to give Blackburn the lead.
The remainder of the first half plays out as if this is the match that Steve Kean dreamt last night. There is no fluency about Manchester United – Nani, in particular, plays as if he put his boots on the wrong feet prior to kick-off and is to embarrassed by this oversight to rectify it – and Blackburn, for all the limitations that they display, are at least reasonably defensively well-organised and this is enough to keep them in the lead for the remainder of the half. The home dressing room, it rather feels, is probably not a place that one would wish to be at half-time. It feels as if a golden opportunity to climb back to the top of the Premier League is slipping away from them.
Within the space of six minutes of the start of the second half, Blackburn Rovers have had the taste of the a dream scenario followed immediately by a taste of things to come. Yakubu, who falls as a player somewhere between skilled modern forward and battering ram, shoots Blackburn into a two-goal from an angle, but this advantage lasts less than twenty seconds. Immediately from the kick-off, Rafael drives a shot-cum-cross across the Blackburn penalty area and Berbatov, who somehow seems destined to be at the centre of attention all aftenoon even if he doesn’t give much impression of wanting to be – turns the ball in. Eleven minutes later, he’s at it again. Antonio Valencia, this time, is the provider and his cross is less than perfect, but Berbatov manages to find enough power in his shot to drag Manchester United back to level terms.
Old Trafford had been shaken to life with Berbatov’s first goal, but Manchester United are still misfiring and, while Bulgaria’s answer to Alain Delon has the propensity to capability to be able to drag them back into matches like this and with a flourish that can bring a tear to the eye of a grown man, he can’t account for mistakes such as that made by David Ge Gea with ten minutes left to play. A corner from the left should comfortably clears, bt De Gea fails to gather and, amidst the melee, Grant Hanley bundles the ball over the line to restore Blackburn’s lead. Manchester United try to reimpose themselves upon the match, but Blackburn’s confidence has been restored with the lead and they play out the final minutes of the match with relative comfort, notwithstanding a bit of a scramble inside their own penalty area with seconds left to play.
So, will the real Blackburn Rovers please stand up? On the evidence of the last week or so, the Steve Kean hokey cokey is now firmly pointing in an inward direction but, much as their performance this afternoon hinted at their capability to climb much higher in the Premier League (much as their performance at Anfield and their win against Arsenal earlier in the season did), they need to be turning in this sort of performance with much greater consistency than they have been since August. They are, however, capable – plenty capable – of better than they have demonstrated for much of this season so far. Whether those that have spent much of the last five months booing Kean’s every movement will be placated by this win and – possibly more significantly – this performance, however, remains to be seen.
As for Manchester United, well, this is a performance that feels as if it has come at the wrong time in more than one respect. In the aftermath of their home humbling by Manchester City, they ground out a series of wins whilst only seldom seeming as if they moving from first gear. This righted itself after their Champions League defeat in Switzerland, but today’s performance was surprisingly lethargic and disjointed, and hints at Alex Ferguson having a little more work to do if his team is to overhaul Manchester City at the top of the table. In a broader perspective, though (and Manchester United supporters are likely to disagree vehemently with this), both teams deserve credit for ending 2011 with one of the most entertaining and surprising games of the Premier League season so far.
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