FOR the first time in weeks Manchester United were last night able to muster the side that won the championship and they demonstrated that they are not going to relinquish their title without a fearsome scrap.
Fortunate to be only one down at half-time, to a Chris Sutton penalty, they responded with three second-half goals in a pulsating match at Ewood Park. Andy Cole, after 55 minutes, gave United belief, Paul Scholes, after 73, put them ahead, and David Beckham, in injury-time, sealed the victory.
The result lifts them six points clear of Arsenal and, although the Londoners have three games in hand, their task will seem that much bigger. Indeed, with United playing Liverpool on Good Friday, Arsenal could be facing a nine-point gap by the time they play Newcastle at Highbury on Saturday.
It was not hard to see where United's second-half energy came from. Alex Ferguson remains the driving force of this team and he was almost as active as his players as he leapt from the dug-out with each goal and rushed to the touchline to berate both the officials and his own back four in a fizzing second-half. "They think I'm going to retire," he said with a smile when he had calmed down. "This was to remind them I'm no' givin' up.''
Neither will United who showed they still have that champions' knack of winning when playing poorly. Though they had Peter Schmeichel, Gary Pallister and Ryan Giggs back from injury they were outplayed in the first half.
Rovers, with one win in 11 against United and chasing a European place themselves, were soon dominant. Billy McKinlay and Tim Sherwood were running the midfield and Sutton and Kevin Gallacher causing havoc in attack. They had few real chances, with the best early ones falling to Colin Hendry, Jeff Kenna and McKinlay.
Then United gave them a helping hand, a pair of them, both belonging to Gary Neville who pushed and pulled Damien Duff to the ground after he had skipped past Scholes and himself. Sutton cracked the penalty under Schmeichel for his 20th goal of the season. It was also the 100th of his career - but only the first against United.
"Sutton for England" rang round Ewood Park yet the prospect of a second chance for the B team refusenik, who received the Carling Player of the Month award for February before the game, grows ever-dimmer given Alan Shearer's steady return to fitness and form.
At half-time, as well as presumably roasting his players, Ferguson brought on Nicky Butt and pushed Scholes into attack. United were immediately more competitive and both McKinlay and Garry Flitcroft were booked as Rovers responded. United now gained more possession and, after 53 minutes, Gary Neville might have equalised when Giggs' deep cross landed at his feet six yards out. Unfamiliar with the situation he delayed then shot weakly.
No matter. Two minutes later United created another chance and this time it fell to a goalscorer. Beckham slid a ball down the right to Cole who cut inside Stephane Henchoz before shooting inside Fettis's far post.
Sutton and Scholes went close at either end before the match, always simmering, threatened to boil over. Beckham, released down the right, appeared to go down too easily when Wilcox, in an attempt to slow him, put an arm across his chest and neck. Gerald Ashby waved play on so, within a minute, Beckham extracted his own retribution on Wilcox. The referee's assistant flagged his foul, Ashby appeared to reach for his book only to see his assistant confronted by Beckham and Ferguson.
The United manager then angrily rebuked Ashby before Brian Kidd ushered him away. In the aftermath both Beckham and Scholes, who crudely fouled McKinlay, escaped bookings.
To add salt to the Blackburn wound United then scored with a goal created by Beckham. Gary Neville intercepted Jason Wilcox's pass and fed Beckham whose superb cross rebounded in off Scholes' stomach. Rovers, who had 12 shots to United's seven, pressed for an equaliser and might have had a penalty when Pallister tripped the turning Gallacher.
They also went close through Hendry, with a header which Schmeichel grabbed at close range, and shots from Gallacher and Sutton. But they could not match the champions' clinical finishing, which was underlined when Beckham ran on to Giggs' slide-rule pass to have the final word.
Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Fettis; Kenna, Henchoz, Hendry, Wilcox; Flitcroft, Sherwood, McKinlay, Duff; Gallacher, Sutton. Substitutes not used: Davidson, Ripley, Dahlin, Broomes, Williams (gk).
Manchester United: Schmeichel; G Neville, Johnsen, Pallister, Irwin; Beckham, Scholes, P Neville, Giggs; Solskjaer (Butt, h-t), Cole. Substitutes not used: May, Sheringham, Thornley, Van der Gouw (gk).
Referee: G Ashby (Worcester).
Race for the Premiership
P W D L F A Pts
Man Utd 33 20 6 7 63 24 66
Arsenal 30 17 9 4 49 26 60
Liverpool 31 15 9 7 54 34 54
Chelsea 31 16 3 12 60 35 51
Leeds 32 15 6 11 47 34 51
Blackburn 31 14 9 8 52 42 51
West Ham 31 14 5 12 44 40 47
Derby 31 13 6 12 44 41 45
Aston Villa 33 13 6 14 40 42 45
Coventry 31 11 11 9 37 36 44
Southampton 32 13 4 15 41 44 43
Leicester 31 10 11 10 36 33 41
Sheff Wed 32 11 7 14 46 58 40
Wimbledon 31 9 10 12 30 34 37
Newcastle 31 9 9 13 28 35 36
Tottenham 32 9 8 15 33 49 35
Everton 32 8 10 14 36 47 34
Bolton 32 6 13 13 29 48 31
Barnsley 32 9 4 19 33 73 31
C Palace 31 6 8 17 27 54 26
10 Apr Liverpool (H); 18 Apr Newcastle (H); 27 Apr C Palace (A); 4 May Leeds (H); 10 May Barnsley (A)
11 Apr Newcastle (H); 13 Apr Blackburn (A); 18 Apr Wimbledon (H); 25 Apr Barnsley (A); 9 Apr Derby (H); 3 May Everton (H); 6 May Liverpool (A); 10 May A Villa (A).Reuse content