Rain fails to halt United progress
Blackburn 0-1 Manchester United
Hidden behind a row of terraced houses and buffeted by bad weather descending from the Pennines, it hardly rivals the glamour of the Bernabeu. Indeed, it even seems a world away from Stretford. But Blackburn, should Mark Hughes' statement of admiration lead to a move, could be David Beckham's next home. In the meantime, it temporarily hosted Hughes' and Beckham's old club.
Assertions that no one wants to go to Blackburn should be taken as a compliment. There are few more imposing places for away teams to triumph. But as if to make Ewood Park all the more enticing to the former England captain, it was the venue of a torrential downpour, giving Manchester United a traditional East Lancashire welcome.
It was precisely the sort of match that Chelsea would win and, right now, Arsenal and Liverpool probably wouldn't. United took all three points, and deservedly so.
They did so despite reminders that Wayne Rooney can be fallible, and in spite of the danger posed by Morten Gamst Pedersen's supreme set-pieces. And they did so knowing that Chelsea had delivered their own statement of intent in the title race by thrashing Watford 4-0 before kick-off at Ewood Park.
United restored their three-point advantage, but Sir Alex Ferguson remained cautious. 'Chelsea have done fantastically in the last couple of years by winning the league early on,' he said. 'At least this good start must give us a chance. But a lot of things come into consideration - you've got to get through December, which is always difficult. By January, you've got a good idea who is going to contest and who is involved with relegation. That's the pivotal time.'
Hughes, one of a select group who have scored 150 goals for Manchester United, attributed their improvement this season, albeit indirectly, to the sale of another who has reached that milestone - Ruud van Nistelrooy. His verdict on United's class of 2006 emphasised the variety and speed of their attacks without the Dutchman.
'They're more dynamic this year, they've got a lot of pace and they have more movement in forward areas,' the Blackburn boss said. 'They will go very close [to the title]. Invariably they come stronger in the second half of the season. It will be a good side that stops them taking it.'
Hughes also knew, better than most, to watch out for a United backlash. For Blackburn, the midweek defeat to Southend was arguably the worse possible result.
The underachievers in Essex were swiftly ditched, with only Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo surviving from the side sunk at Southend, but there was one significant difference in United's strongest 11.
With Ryan Giggs deployed in the centre, Rooney languished on the left on a chastening day. But while his side found their fluency, Rooney lost his potency in front of goal. Giggs curled a wonderful pass around Lucas Neill, Ronaldo drove in a low cross and, from four yards, Rooney missed his kick.
Ten minutes later, another improbable miss followed. Brad Friedel could only parry Saha's fierce drive, Rooney arrived on the scene first and somehow shot wide. Now he knows what it feels like to be Emile Heskey.
Nor was his reaction ideal. When Saha was denied a penalty by Mike Riley, pernickety but seemingly correct, Rooney's histrionic reaction earned him a yellow card; in the current climate, he could count himself fortunate that Graham Poll was not the referee.
United responded rather better. After the interval, the substitute John O'Shea crossed, Giggs stretched to pull the ball back into the six-yard box and Saha swivelled to score. Victory was almost garnished by Ronaldo, whose magnificent solo run ended with a shot past the post.
It would have made the latter stages altogether more comfortable. Edwin van der Sar blocked from Benni McCarthy and earned the praise of his manager. 'If you go back to maybe the 95/96 season, I think we only let in 18 goals and [Peter] Schmeichel was unhappy at a couple of them. Edwin is the same. He's always on at defenders,' added Ferguson.
That defence was shorn of the unimpressive understudies who were embarrassed at Southend. For all the excellence of United's first 11, questions persist about their strength in depth, though Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Darren Fletcher and Gabriel Heinze are notable exceptions. Hughes, however, was unconcerned about the calibre of Ferguson's replacements, saying: 'Their squad? It's bigger than mine.'
It is, and Ferguson does not have the Welshman's injury problems. The long-term absences of Ryan Nelsen and Steven Reid have harmed Blackburn. And Rovers' immediate fortunes would be improved if they could get the New Zealander and the Irishman back in contention. David Beckham can wait.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Paul Scholes - there is a case for Giggs and Saha, while Hughes thought Tugay a worthy candidate, but on a slippery surface, Scholes' passing was a class above the rest.
INJURY NEWS: Gary Neville sustained a calf injury and is out of England's friendly in Holland. It could open the way for Micah Richards to make his debut.
BLACKBURN VERDICT: 'If we play to that level during the season, we'll win more than we lose,' said Hughes and despite the losing streak, he is probably right.
MAN UNITED VERDICT: This was the sort of performance that bodes well for their chances; defensive solidity and the ability to win away from home count a lot in the title race.