United swing into action
It is a trick many a struggling politician dreams of pulling off in the polls. Manchester United have recorded a ten-point swing in the space of a month. Having been five points behind Manchester City on March 3, they begin April 3 with a five-point lead.
Their charge has been perfectly timed, with their capacity to find another gear when required epitomised at Ewood Park. After 80 minutes of determined defiance, Blackburn Rovers were set for a hard-earned point. Then United's roadrunners intervened, Antonio Valencia scoring with a stunning, swerving strike, the in-form player using the outside of his right foot. Then Ashley Young defeated the excellent Paul Robinson with a shot of unerring accuracy. "Now you're gonna believe us," the travelling fans in the Darwen End chorused. "We're going to win the league."
Their record 19th title was clinched at Ewood Park but won at Old Trafford. The historic 20th, should it be sealed, will have been won not just at Arsenal and Tottenham but in games at Blackburn and Bolton, Wolves and West Brom. A manager with a dozen titles to his name has 12 away wins this season, the latest courtesy of a quintessential quality: once again, United showed their age-old ability to strike late.
"[Valencia's] goal, coming so late in the game, was obviously important," Sir Alex Ferguson said. "It typifies the history of our club. It was a long wait; we just had to persevere."
Perseverance brought its prizes - revenge on the team who spoiled his 70th birthday party at Old Trafford, and redemption for the principal culprit that day. That was the nadir of David de Gea's United career, at fault for two goals and especially hapless when Grant Hanley headed Rovers' winner. He was omitted afterwards, dropped rather than rested or rotated, but a return has led to rehabilitation.
Protagonist and antagonist from December's drama were thrown together again on the stroke of half-time, with an alternative outcome. Hanley's header was tipped over, De Gea displaying the composure he lacked as 2011 concluded cruelly.
Past criticisms seem increasingly less relevant, a supposed susceptibility to long-range shots belied when he denied Junior Hoilett and Marcus Olsson. "The progress is obvious, everyone can see it," Ferguson said. "He's growing in stature and confidence. We've always known he had great ability. He made three great first-half saves but that's the sort of threat that Blackburn offered."
De Gea was defeated only, spectacularly but irrelevantly, by Morten Gamst Pedersen, a lovely hit rendered immaterial by the fact the ball had gone out of play before Steven Nzonzi crossed to him. Otherwise, De Gea was unbeatable. "Their goalkeeper had a great evening," Steve Kean rued.
The Blackburn manager has been the recipient of plenty of praise from his peers of late and Ferguson paid a different form of compliment in his team selection and tactics. The midfield was bolstered at the expense of the attack, United opting for the youthful power of Phil Jones and the timeless nous of Paul Scholes as well as the indispensable Michael Carrick.
Yet Wayne Rooney was sacrificed in the reshuffle, banishment to the graveyard shift on the left flank constituting a strange reward for scoring 17 goals in 17 games. The goal-a-game ratio would have been extended had Paul Robinson not clawed away a curling free-kick, but while Rooney's redeployment gave United a lopsided look - Valencia provided a constant supply of crosses as he hugged the right touchline, the Englishman rather fewer as he veered in from the opposite wing - it allowed him to demonstrate another facet of his game.
A wonderful, sweeping cross-field pass led to Javier Hernandez volleying wide. Minutes later, the Mexican struck wood, the ball rebounding to a grateful Robinson after a combination of fast legs and quick minds, Valencia delivering the cross for Hernandez to nip in and shoot.
It was a half United controlled without creating too much. Blackburn began the second period in spritely fashion but tired as their efforts told. Robinson was increasingly busy until, eventually, Blackburn were outflanked by the two wingers, Valencia and the scoring substitute Young. Until their intervention, it seemed Greater Manchester had a new soothsayer, an Italian oracle called Mystic Mancini. The Manchester City manager had predicted that Blackburn would hold United. For 80 minutes, he appeared clairvoyant, but the eventual outcome rendered it a piece of wishful thinking.
So near but yet so far from being vindicated, Roberto Mancini attracted little sympathy from the United faithful. Ignoring their hosts, champions in 1995, they concentrated on a club whose last title came some 27 years earlier. "City's cracking up," came the refrain. True or not, United had a crackerjack of a goal, courtesy of the valiant Valencia. In more ways than one, theirs is a march to glory.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Antonio Valencia. Perhaps he misunderstood the question, perhaps he was being modest, but when the excellent Ecuadorian was asked if his goal was shot or cross, he replied: "50-50." Given the accuracy of his deliveries from the flanks, it seemed a certain shot. Against one of the division's quickest left-backs, in Martin Olsson, the electric Valencia was still capable of beating his immediate opponent.
BLACKBURN VERDICT: "If we play like we did for 80 minutes against any of the teams we have got remaining then they will be in for a real tough time," Kean said. It was a fair verdict. A team who went all season without a clean sheet threatened a third in succession. They defended admirably and worked industriously. Yet the fact that Kean made no substitutes is a sign of how slender this squad is. Back in the relegation zone, albeit on goal difference, they can take heart from the performance but must fear any injuries at all.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Ferguson felt his replacements made a difference, praising Ryan Giggs as well as Young. His gambit of playing three central midfielders brought control but not incision but, once again, they defended well, with Rio Ferdinand, who made a magnificent tackle on Yakubu, the pick at the back. Ferguson believes the title could come down to goal difference and City's advantage, once huge, has now been whittled down to one.