Blackburn Rovers . . . .1
THE EXPLOSION of relief at the end said it all. United were barely a minute away from their first home defeat for 14 months when Paul Ince bustled in to equalise with his third goal in as many games.
Kevin Gallacher had penetrated the champions' defences with a breathtaking finish which rugged Rovers defended resolutely, with just the right amount of legitimate aggression.
Justifiably proud of his team's bristling performance, Kenny Dalglish found the result hard to bear. 'I think we deserved more than we got,' he said, making it plain that he believed the corner which produced the equaliser should not have been awarded.
Blackburn felt the correct outcome when Ryan Giggs and Colin Hendry tussled for possession would have been a goal-kick. 'At least I can sleep sound in my bed tonight,' Dalglish added, inferring that the referee might be wrestling with his conscience.
He may have been right - the decision was too close to call for those of us without the benefit of TV replays - but it was a pity that the whiff of controversy should mar what was a rip-roaring match.
Predictably, there were no complaints from Alex Ferguson. 'It just proves that we are not beaten until the last kick of the ball,' he said. 'There was a bit of frustration,' he added. 'The players knew this was an important game and maybe they let the pressure get to them.'
The last time Blackburn were at Old Trafford, in May, it was to provide the supporting cast for United's title celebrations - an experience they did not enjoy one bit. They vowed it would be different on their return, and they were as good as their word, outfighting and outmanoeuvring the champions to such an extent that it was the 79th minute before Tim Flowers was required to make a save.
Blackburn, of course, are the only team who can compete with United on equal terms in the transfer market, and it was the latest example of 'Uncle' Jack Walker's munificence, the pounds 2.7m David Batty, whose spirited battling set the pattern.
Batty may not be everybody's idea of an England midfield player, but he is a formidable scrapper at club level, and he powered through Mark Hughes and Roy Keane - neither of them shrinking violets - to set up the opening goal, after 17 minutes.
If Batty was the mugger, Gallacher was the pickpocket. Pushed forward to partner Alan Shearer from the 12th minute, when Mike Newell limped off, he took his chance like a natural, nudging the ball past Gary Pallister and then Steve Bruce before flicking it nonchalantly into Peter Schmeichel's left-hand corner as the goalkeeper advanced to meet the danger.
Having seized the initiative, Blackburn kept it. A reminder that they had travelled a long way in a short time came when their followers taunted United's with 'Are you Burnley in disguise?', but if their tunes are still parochial there is nothing small-town about their football, which was marvellously competitive throughout.
The champions' celebrated forward line was subdued, for once, by disciplined, assiduous marking and their only chance of real consequence before Ince's face-saver was from a set-piece, which saw a header from Bruce cleared off the line by Jason Wilcox.
Blackburn came close to improving their lead when Tim Sherwood tested Schmeichel with a blistering volley, saved at the second attempt, and United were rattled.
The pace was unremitting, the commitment unforgiving, and Shearer and Batty were booked in separate incidents as the match defied brass-monkey conditions by bubbling nicely to the boil.
Shearer might have made it safe when he headed a cross from Wilcox against the crossbar, but with 89 minutes on the clock he must have thought Blackburn's sixth win in seven League games was in the bag.
Wrong. These champions, like the Liverpool sides whom they are threatening to emulate, last the full distance, and never-say-die persistence was to have its reward.
Something akin to panic was evident when Schmeichel charged forward for Sharpe's last-minute corner, but it was the more practised forehead of Pallister which won crucial possession. Flowers parried the close-range nod with which Brian McClair met Pallister's initial header, and Ince's left foot supplied an emphatic finish from six yards.
Thirteen points clear, United are hardly on the wobble, but the concession of two home points provides a welcome hint of encouragement for their pursuers - not least second-placed Leeds, who are at Old Trafford on Saturday.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Parker (McClair, 76), Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Giggs, Keane, Ince, Sharpe; Hughes (Ferguson, 82), Cantona. Substitute not used: Sealey (gk).
Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Berg, May, Hendry, Le Saux; Ripley, Batty, Sherwood, Gallacher; Shearer, Newell (Wilcox, 12). Substitutes not used: Mimms (gk), Marker.
Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).
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