Blackburn Rovers 1 Manchester United 2
They may not be many people's favourites for the title, but Blackburn Rovers and Manchester United, the heavyweights of the Premiership's first three seasons, can still script a drama to enthral anyone.
Last night the pair traded goals, tackles and cautions in a gripping contest at Ewood Park that may, when the season is reviewed, be seen as the moment Rovers relinquished their title.
It is only 10 days into the campaign, but already they have lost three matches out of four. In a 38-game programme, they cannot afford to lose many more but, with the draining Champions' League to come, will surely do so.
United's mood could not be more different. After enduring a summer of supposed crisis, they are joint top with Newcastle and Leeds, having played one match more.
However, United's win, secured by goals from Lee Sharpe and David Beckham, which sandwiched an equaliser from Alan Shearer, was marred by the sending- off of Roy Keane. Keane has been the driving force behind United's recovery from an opening-day defeat, but last night he almost cost them victory. Already booked - somewhat harshly - for fouling Matt Holmes, he tumbled under Colin Hendry's challenge with 15 minutes to go. Television replays suggested there was no contact and, although Keane may have simply tripped, the likelihood was that he was looking for a penalty.
Normally this would not matter, but David Elleray had already booked Graeme Le Saux for diving. Now, with Rovers' players angrily reminding him of that, he dismissed Keane. This had been creeping in from the Continent, Elleray said afterwards, and had to be stamped out.
United always looked the better side although Rovers, as ever, refused to fold. But effort was not enough. The service to Shearer was poor, from the wings and midfield. Chris Sutton, such a good foil last year, is struggling with his own form - he has scored twice in 28 Premiership matches and has not struck at Ewood since November.
Andy Cole, by contrast, is beginning to look the part. Playing his second game in three days, he showed no sign of injury. He and Paul Scholes have quickly developed an understanding which twice went close to giving United a first-half lead. Both times Hendry thwarted Cole, once with an excellent tackle, then with a goal-line clearance after he had rounded Tim Flowers.
Thirty seconds after the re-start, Sharpe put them ahead. The goal followed an immense goalmouth scramble in which Flowers made three outstanding saves. He denied Nicky Butt, Cole and Keane. Henning Berg also cleared off the line from Scholes, but United persisted and Sharpe swept the ball in from six yards.
Rovers responded like champions, Shearer driving home a loose ball from a corner within a dozen minutes. But United would not be denied and, after good work from Scholes, Cole and Sharpe in another melee, Beckham, on the turn, curled a stunning shot past Flowers.
"I have no quarrels with the result," Ray Harford, the Rovers manager, said. "They were the better side. We have too many players off form to carry them. New faces, whether returning injured players or new ones from outside, are essential."
Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Berg, Hendry, Pearce, Le Saux; Ripley (Newell, 75), Batty, Sherwood, Holmes (Atkins, 57); Shearer, Sutton. Substitute not used: Mimms (gk).
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Pallister, Bruce, Irwin; Beckham (Davies, 76), Butt, Keane, Sharpe; Cole, Scholes (Giggs, 76). Substitutes not used: Parker.
Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).Reuse content