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Nov 10, 2007

Ronaldo takes stage in Rooney's absence

Manchester United 2-0 Blackburn Rovers

With parts of Old Trafford populated by people who could testify to the ferocity of Sir Alex Ferguson's hairdryer treatment, it was indicative of the importance of more modern management methods that Blackburn were beaten by a player he had sweet-talked.

Cristiano Ronaldo's brace was the latest evidence of his brilliance but Brian McClair, alongside Ferguson in the home dug-out, Mark Hughes, in the opposing technical area, and Alex McLeish, in the directors' box, have all experienced the United manager's temper.

Yet while Ferguson's fury has become famous, his expertise in diplomacy has proved invaluable, not least in persuading his disturbed maverick talents not to take their leave. A conversation with Eric Cantona in 1995 had a profound effect on United and, by extension, the rest of the Premier League. A chat with a disgruntled Cristiano Ronaldo after he had morphed into a tabloid hate figure during the 2006 World Cup, may yet prove still more significant.

Cantona, after all, only extended his stay at Old Trafford for a further two seasons before turning his hand to acting. Ronaldo, often accused of emulating the Frenchman in that respect, could continue to dazzle for a decade. It is unwelcome news for overworked defenders.

Stephen Warnock was the latest subjected to an examination and, while culpable for neither of Ronaldo's strikes, he is unlikely to relish a reprise in the near future. Two goals in as many minutes determined a potentially awkward game as Ronaldo advanced into double figures for the season.

For a player with such an emphasis on the aesthetic and such a sense of showmanship, the statistics are impressive. The scorer of 23 goals last season appears intent on topping that tally this. It is substance and style in equal measure and it is especially significant when, as is the case for the next four weeks, Wayne Rooney is absent.

Lacking one talisman, another compensated. Along with Fernando Torres' contribution at Anfield on Saturday, it has been a weekend to highlight the issue of how class elevates accomplished teams into comfortable winners. United scored twice in the three matches when Ronaldo was suspended. They did so in two minutes with him today.

The first was evidence of his aerial ability. After Nemanja Vidic, he is arguably United's best attacking header of a ball. From Ryan Giggs' out-swinging corner, his header had enough power to beat David Bentley, positioned on the goal-line.

The second was trademark United, fluent, free-flowing football. Louis Saha fed Carlos Tevez, whose pass picked out Ronaldo to slide a shot past Brad Friedel, despite the goalkeeper's despairing touch.

'It was decided by two marvellous bits of football,' said Ferguson. 'Cristiano's header was absolutely stunning and the quick counter-attack killed them. That was decisive.'

It increased Ronaldo's recent haul to seven goals in seven games and, but for a Bentley goal-line clearance, that would be eight. His is not of the mentality of a conventional winger. Indeed, a one-man quest to add United's fourth - and his own first - in the dying stages against Dynamo Kiev was a sign that his appetite for goals was not sated by seeing his team-mates score.

In Rooney's absence, there was finally, a start for Saha, the man sidelined so often it seems his name is incomplete without the prefix 'injury-prone'. Ferguson could not be faulted for removing the striker with a quarter of the match remaining in a precautionary move. Down to two forwards - and with Saha one of them - the need for reinforcements in attack in January is apparent, even if Ronaldo is outscoring most strikers.

Including United's, out-shone by their midfield. With Giggs especially influential, only Friedel denied them further goals. 'We could have scored more, and our football deserved more, I think,' added Ferguson. 'But it was a steady performance today.'

So, in its own way, was Blackburn's and their initial attacking intent had almost yielded a lead when Christopher Samba's fierce drive struck the upright with Edwin van der Sar comfortably beaten. That, however, was the eventual fate of Rovers, who had managed draws against Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool but could not complete the quartet against the champions.

They finished, too, without a full complement of players. Fouls on Tevez and Saha brought David Dunn a pair of yellow cards. 'Unlucky,' was Ferguson's verdict. Hughes, who seemed rather angrier at the time, reflected: 'The game is poorer because of that, and as a contest it was over. The second half was taken out of our hands somewhat.' But whatever impact referees have, Ronaldo can specialise in taking the game away from opponents.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Cristiano Ronaldo - Determined the outcome of the match before half-time. With United wondering about the impact of Rooney's absence, it was the ideal way to alleviate nerves.

MAN UTD VERDICT: Making victory appear easy is an art in itself and, after their early-season struggles, it is one United appear to have mastered. As a team, they never reached the peaks they are capable of, but, when, by delivering the vital goals, they did not need to. Anderson's seamless integration in the centre of midfield was another bonus, along with the latest clean sheet.

BLACKBURN VERDICT: Finally defeated by one of the big four, there was evidence nonetheless why they are punching above their weight. A threat was apparent before Ronaldo's brace, while Friedel's late excellence kept the score down. The one position where a well-balanced squad look short is in the centre of midfield, with Dunn's forthcoming ban, along with the absence of Robbie Savage and Steven Reid, a problem for Hughes.

HOME ADVANTAGE: When it was suggested to Mark Hughes that the bigger clubs get decisions in their favour on their own ground, he replied, tongue firmly in cheek: 'They didn't used to when I played here.'

SCOT FREE: The Scotland manager Alex McLeish among the spectators at Old Trafford. Whether it was of any help in his professional duties, however, is a moot point. With Darren Fletcher an unused substitute, the match was lacking in Scottish representatives. Benni McCarthy, despite his surname, doesn't qualify to face Italy on Saturday.


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