United left frustrated after damaging draw
There is such a thing as the Manchester United way. It includes rousing response to setbacks, a tradition of understudies delivering crucial contributions and that habit, so endearing to some and so irritating to others, of delivering late goals.
Yet each of those traits was missing in a stalemate at Ewood Park. In short, for 90 minutes they forgot to be Manchester United. It was soporific stuff, not a phrase often associated with Sir Alex Ferguson's side, on a day to suggest the Premier League trophy will have to be taken 200 miles south.
"I think it has slipped away from us today," said the United manager. "We had to win them all going into today's game. We didn't do it. That is the disappointment. It is going to be very difficult to win this league. It was a bad result."
The recalls of three men with a combined total of over 2,000 games for the club, in Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, provided reminders of the past, but the present contained no stirring deeds. Instead, minus the player who has come to epitomise the club, Wayne Rooney, United looked to have lost their mojo.
Branding them a one-man team is unfair, but it is evident that a certain individual makes a vast difference. It is also significant that United began the game shorn of their three premier players during the campaign. Patrice Evra emerged for the final 10 minutes, while Darren Fletcher remained alongside Ferguson in the dugout. The Frenchman's dynamism and the Scot's drive were missed in equal measure.
There are indications that a heavy workload has taken its toll on both in recent games, but it amounted to another contentious choice from the manager. Conservatism may be a product of the ageing process, but Ferguson shows a greater inclination to change more than ever.
Six alterations were indications of an overhaul, a formation that was nearer 4-2-4 than 4-4-2 suggested a throwback to the era when Blackburn were challenging United for the title. Yet while the teamsheet promised boldness, there was too little of it in the performance.
Some United matches progress at a breathtaking pace. This was a game that meandered. One great opportunity - "an outstanding chance, a golden chance," according to Ferguson - arrived just before half-time when Dimitar Berbatov sent Antonio Valencia clear and Paul Robinson blocked the Ecuadorian's shot. "It jumped up on Valencia a bit," insisted his manager. "A critical save," said Sam Allardyce.
It was the best of the Bulgarian in a game when the onus was on him. The rest, however, was quintessential Berbatov; not quite what United needed. One volley was hit straight at Robinson, another directed well wide. It was more of a contribution than his detractors may argue, but not enough to determine the destination of the game, let alone the title.
It is not that Berbatov was the most ineffectual performer on scarcely ranked as the finest performance produced by Giggs, Nani or the substitute Ji-sung Park, but his price tag confers expectations to influence a game in the way Rooney, Carlos Tevez or Fernando Torres might. Or, indeed, the junior partner in the attack has done. Alongside the Bulgarian, Federico Macheda was starved of service; catapulted from anonymity 12 months ago, he returned there on his first league start of the season.
"It was down to what we could do in the last third of the field and we weren't good enough," added Ferguson. Allardyce has been accused of being an acolyte of the United manager. His analysis, however, suggested a United side with a lesser threat. The Blackburn boss added: "Statistics tell you that, the third leading goalscorer is own goals. It's unlike Manchester United to have no one else [apart from Rooney and Berbatov] in double figures. Perhaps the finishing is not quite as good as it used to be, but the creativity is still there.
"I've dented Manchester United's chances, of course I have," added Allardyce, rather personalising a defiant display from his team. "Things conspired a little bit against us in terms of injuries," added Ferguson, who lost John O'Shea and Giggs. The result is that his side are limping towards the end of a season that is starting to resemble 1997-98 or 2001-02. They were campaigns that promised more than they ultimately delivered; both ended with a side from London doing the Double.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Phil Jones - Another accomplished performance from Blackburn's teenage central defender. It is testament to Jones' displays that he was preferred to the fit-again captain Ryan Nelsen and that Rovers have only conceded two goals in his five league starts. One block from Berbatov was brilliant.
BLACKBURN VERDICT: They were resolute and resilient as ever at Ewood Park. As Allardyce, ever one for a favourable fact, noted, Rovers have only lost three of 28 home league games since he arrived. As he also admitted, a side that scores the majority of its goals from set-pieces requires more creativity.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Ferguson is searching for a winning formula at the moment, but it is proving elusive. That neither Michael Carrick nor Rafael da Silva was even on the bench was a hint Ferguson was dissatisfied with their displays against Bayern Munich. But after the European exit and the loss to Chelsea, it completed a damaging 12 days for United.
RIO BLOW: Ferdinand is a doubt for Saturday's Manchester derby, according to Ferguson, with a groin problem.