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United leave it late to twist knife

IT WAS another of those nights on which Manchester United exuded anything but the impression of imperious champions-elect.

As United's game at Blackburn headed towards a drab conclusion, it seemed Roberto Mancini, the Manchester City manager, knew rather more about his title rivals than the characterisation of him as the manager who was 'losing it' implied. "United will draw. Do you want to bet with me?" he had said of this game.

Then the player who has quietly established himself as the most significant in United's march towards a 20th championship stepped up. Antonio Valencia, one of the least imposing of Alex Ferguson's players, but the one Wayne Rooney says he most wants to see on the team sheet, was the only Red to display genuine creativity all night.

There were only nine minutes remaining when he gathered a ball rolled into his path from Rafael da Silva, took it into the right side of the penalty area and, from the most acute angle, drilled an unstoppable right-foot drive into the net.

Ashley Young's strike five minutes later left United with one hand on the Premier League trophy.

On March 3, City were five points clear at the top of the table. Today - a month later - their rivals lead by the same margin. The 10-point swing reflects the form of a side who have won 10 games in 11.

Mancini said at the weekend that two more wins for United - here and at home to Queen's Park Rangers on Sunday - would mean City's pursuit of the title was "finished", a surprise to some of his own players perhaps, who may have wondered why he was ready to write off their challenge. "City's cracking up," sang United's support at Blackburn last night, recalling Ferguson's famous suggestion that Rafael Benitez was doing precisely that when another manager's challenge to Old Trafford supremacy was ground into the dust three years ago.

Mancini's assertion that United would only draw with Steve Kean's side was certainly strange, though it had some substance, given the Reds had won only two of their previous 11 games at Ewood Park, and effectively waved farewell to the title with an anaemic draw here two years ago.

United began the game looking like the title contenders they are, and were full of momentum and self-belief. While Blackburn's strategy involved getting the ball to Junior Hoilett, who, at times, had too much guile for Michael Carrick. Yet, United had a myriad of options in a first half which they largely controlled. The mystery was how David De Gea managed to leave the field at half-time with three saves of considerable note to his name, while his Rovers counterpart Paul Robinson had barely muddied his gloves.

In part, United's profligacy was to blame. They were given an alarming amount of space in the Rovers penalty area but squandered it, with Javier Hernandez certainly lacking a decisive finish. He slid a left-foot shot past the post after Rooney had lifted the ball over midfield to him just five minutes in, and diverted a testing low ball from the enervating Valencia onto the base of the post, from where it bounced back into the Rovers goalkeeper's hands, shortly after.

The home side had pace which United, with their intricate patterns, somehow lacked. A 20-yard shot from Hoilett, which De Gea twisted to claw over the bar on 17 minutes, was the outstanding moment of the first period.

Martin Olsson provoked a similar save just before half-time and, from the resulting corner, Hanley's header called on De Gea to leap and save with his fingers again.

United began the second half trying their luck from any range. A Rooney free-kick brought a low, two-handed save from Robinson, Rafael tested the goalkeeper from distance, and Hernandez failed to connect with a ball lofted back in to him.

The frustration began to show when Paul Scholes, questionably penalised for a challenge on Marcus Olsson in front of the United area, responded with incandescent anger.

United were losing their way when Morten Gamst Pedersen drove home into the net, but the strike was chalked off because the ball had gone beyond the dead-ball line before Steven Nzonzi had hooked it into the box.

Crucial

It took a crucial challenge from Rio Ferdinand in the 76th minute to prevent Yakubu sliding in to convert Marcus Olsson's cross, and with United struggling to clear the ball out of their own area, it was hard to see where a goal for the away side might come from.

Valencia had the answer. He had remained the player most likely to rescue his side throughout the second half, and Ferguson's unbridled delight when he drove in United's opening goal told its own story.

The result was not in doubt after that.

Ashley Young, on for Scholes, had been on the field for only seven minutes when he collected the ball outside the penalty area, turned onto his right foot and cracked a shot into the bottom right-hand corner of Robinson's net.

Let's hope Mancini is not a betting man.


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